Review: A family looks for destiny, meaning in 'Smokefall'
Feb. 23, 2016
NEW YORK (AP) — If you conjure up memories of scenes from your life and narrate them with hindsight, you would begin to have the structure of Noah Haidle's bittersweet, idealistic new play "Smokefall."
Notes of magical realism keep the plot revolving through time, in MCC Theater's intelligent, slightly uneven production that opened Monday night off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Haidle presents time as flowing back and forth between decades to illuminate the history of one Midwestern family, and Anne Kauffman has staged the production with fluidity and grace. The title, a word invented by T.S. Eliot, refers to twilight, and it may be the twilight of this family as the younger generation gets lost in reacting to their parents' difficulties.
But thanks to witty, mostly credible plotting and excellent acting, this particular family will still, in the words of Eliot's poetry, "Be remembered; involved with past and future."
Zachary Quinto is all boyish charm as the omniscient narrator, Footnote, wryly informing the audience of helpful plot points with pertinent numbered facts. Somewhat like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," but much less sweepingly, Footnote provides details ranging from characters' destinies to everyday details of life in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
We begin in the present, with middle-class parents Violet and Daniel desperately unhappy but hiding it, in Violet's family house. Brian Hutchison is admirably ordinary as dad Daniel, while Robin Tunney wears a saintly air as extremely pregnant mom Violet. Her children will grow up to be seekers and wanderers, and we watch them across the decades as all family members question the meaning of their lives.
Disturbed young teenager Beauty (an arrestingly complex performance by Taylor Richardson) has given up both speaking and consuming normal nutrition, for reasons that Footnote will eventually reveal. Her public consumption of tree bark, dirt and even paint is embarrassing for the parents, but as Footnote wisely points out, "Like in most families, disturbing behavior that happens daily is ignored." Richardson remarkably transforms into a gravely centered, much older Beauty in the third act, coolly observing her family across the years.
Tom Bloom easily wavers between military smartness and dementia as Violet's father, the Colonel. Later on, he also portrays his own grandson grown old, which is distracting casting until the audience can figure out who he's meant to be. Pivotal family moments are relived several times, as the characters ponder their destinies, original sin, romantic love and some existential philosophy about nature versus nurture.
In the most comical and heartbreaking scene, Hutchison and Quinto are outrageously appealing as Violet's argumentative twin fetuses. Their conversations are sprinkled with existential pronouncements about "the distortion of the nature of man," as one fetus is deeply uncertain about leaving their happy womb. The biggest question Haidle works to illuminate, though, is whether life is worth living despite inevitable tragedies and setbacks.