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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tom Bloom, Robin Tunney, Brian Hutchison, and Taylor Richardson
Photo by Joan Marcus

History, both past and future, weighs heavily on the characters in Smokefall, the deliciously (sometimes too-deliciously quirky) play by Noah Haidle that MCC Theater is producing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Each of them is keenly aware of his or her place in the grand continuum of life and death, and what that means for everyone else in the general vicinity, though the impact of others' opinions is not always given that much weight. After all, each of us most stumble alone through this trudge called existence, so isn't making everything work from the inside out really the only thing you can sensibly do?

The irritation of that question, and how each individual answers it, is the driving force behind both Haidle's play and Anne Kauffman's production of it. Three generations of a single family learn the hard way (and the harder way, and the hardest way) the joys and the limits of personal satisfaction and edification when circumstances demand they choose between what's right for everyone else, and what's right for themselves. And Haidle's exploration of the consequences, of both paths taken and not, reinforces the many ways in which this question is not as easy as it may first appear.

Battle lines are drawn fairly starkly in the first scene, which considers the domestic almost-bliss of a father named Daniel (Brian Hutchison); his pregnant-with-twins wife, Violet (Robin Tunney); their daughter, Beauty (Taylor Richardson); and Violet's father, known only as the Colonel (Tom Bloom), who lives with them. None of them know it when they wake that morning, but this is the last day they will live their lives fully together—and, in fact, the flash point for a convoluted familial implosion that will take literally decades to work itself out completely.

Both the longer-range implications at play and the crucial backstory are provided by an enigmatic figure who knows the minutest details about these people, and is played (with dry whimsy) by Zachary Quinto. As their final breakfast unfolds, he recites "footnotes" that explain the story behind the story—why, for example, Beauty has not uttered a word in three years, and subsists on things like dirt and paint, or the mechanics surrounding the Colonel's ever-expanding forgetfulness and the attempts he makes to grasp on to what thin shreds of his memory still remain.

Zachary Quinto and Taylor Richardson
Photo by Joan Marcus

This man (referred to as Footnote in the Playbill) can't change anything and doesn't try; he accepts, and presents, the events that unfold as historical fact. But there's a strong, straining contrast at play between the figure looking back and those experiencing it unfolding in real time, and genuine conflict between one's decision to accept the inevitable and others' decisions to either create it or endure it. By the time it's all over, we're not sure who's right, and we sense we won't be for sure until we see where Haidle goes next.

The second scene examines how two subsidiary characters from the first grapple with these issues, and either overcome them or fall victim to them. In the third and final scene (which consumes the entirety of the post-intermission portion of this 100-minute evening), which focuses on one of the second's characters (much) further down the line, we face the implication of the types of decision making that defined earlier characters' efforts, and how that can point a clearer way forward for us and for those who come after us. (Apologies for the vagueness here, but dwelling too much on the specifics of what happens after the first scene would be to spoil many of Haidle's most delightful and moving surprises.)

As with his previous plays in New York, Mr. Marmalade (about an unhappy boy conjuring a crude imaginary friend) and Saturn Returns (about a lifelong love affair viewed at 30-year intervals), Haidle refuses to be bound by traditional concepts of realism. And his surreal, imaginary bent is a critical component of his storytelling here, as it lets him dive into complicated realms of thought, feeling, and perception that ordinary words are inadequate to describe. The sustained vaudeville turn of the second scene and the third's all-out shattering of time and space demand a universe that obeys laws as we wish they probably were and not as they actually are.

This allows Haidle and Kaufmann, who has staged things with a sharp wit and a powerful visual sense on Mimi Lien's oddly effective (if not quite attractive) plywood house unit set (the fine costumes are by Asta Bennie Hostetter, the cagey lights by David Weiner), to have unending fun spinning and respinning expectations about what can and cannot be done. And for the most part, the performers capture the spirit exactly. Quinto's dark, wry delivery is just right for spewing out naked narrative and pungent philosophical arguments, and stands beautifully next to Hutchison's deceptively, distantly bright approach. Tunney injects Violet's natural defeatism with compelling warmth, and Richardson tempers Beauty's innate mysticism with a cynic's eye. Bloom brings a terrific, intense energy to the second act, but it still struggling in making the Colonel at once crotchety and stalwart.

Haidle's writing thrives throughout on just that kind of contradiction, and is never afraid to break boundaries, tackle cultural taboos, or defy common sense. By the end of the play, there are few of the first left, all of the second have been upended, and the last is lying, weeping, in a crumpled heap on the floor. (An uproarious, yet contextually appropriate, late sight gag involving a suitcase is the apex of the silliness.)

For all the benefits of this originality, however, at times it's counterproductive. Beauty's ability to eat anything except real food is a gimmick with a limited payoff, more a dramatic bellwether of what you're willing to accept than something that is itself a necessity. And the last scene must unravel so many mysteries before everything may finally be tied up that you can't help but wonder if even Haidle realized he was going too far. Haidle, like Sarah Ruhl, often seems to suffer from having (and executing) too many ideas.

Even so, his concerns are genuine and the emotions they generate real; the matters of posterity and mortality than eventually become the play's centerpiece will be recognizable to anyone who's had a child or a lost a parent. And when it comes to investigating the nuances involved, Haidle pulls no punches in showing you just why all of it's important now and will be for relatives who don't yet exist. We may be but one link in a chain, but without any given link, the whole thing falls apart. Its message about breaking and forging anew these links, with the hope that what we create will someday be impenetrable, is where Smokefall hits hardest and best.

Through March 20
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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