It was a first for this critic. Outside the theater, I looked up at a poster advertising the play. The ad’s type was dominated by a critic’s quote: “If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid, he might have written ‘Smokefall.’” There was no name after the quote, but it was from a publication I used to write for. I had to wonder, who wrote it? Then I realized that I wrote it. I’d completely forgotten having seen and reviewed Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” at South Coast Rep three years ago. I had not intended that big quote on the poster to be a compliment, because I’d found the play very pretentious.
Anne Kauffman directed it then and she directs the first New York production, which opened Monday at Off Broadwy’s Lucille Lortel Theater. The big difference is a much stronger cast led by Zachary Quinto, who plays a young expectant father named Samuel, as well as a character named Footnote and one named Fetus Two. This is where I got the “acid” comment in my original quote.
The “Thornton Wilder” reference comes from Footnote being the narrator who tells us everything we need to know about four generations of a family living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Footnote obviously likes his name, because he keeps repeating it before every observation he makes about the family led by Daniel (Brian Hutchison). For example, “Footnote number 10, Recently he’s been reading self-help books and even though it’s reductive and a little hokey, Daniel really believes in an eternal present and tries too hard to live in each moment.” And, “Footnote number 13, the Colonel also watches public television, not because he can’t sleep, but because most afternoons the silence scares him.”
There are 30 such footnotes. Seeing “Smokefall” the first time, I quickly got the impression that these footnotes would never end and I’d been trapped in a textbook, not a play. Seeing it a second time, I relaxed, knowing there was a finite number. Seeing “Smokefall” again, I also realized that Haidle hasn’t written characters and perhaps never intended to. He gives us four generations of husband-fathers, and since the first three bungled the job, Samuel will probably mess up too. “Smokefall” is filled with talk about DNA, destiny, free will, and original sin.
But back to the absence of characters. In the first act, each family member is defined by an activity or an ailment. The wife-mother (Robin Tunney) is consumed by her pregnancy. The husband-father (Brian Hutchison) plans to abandon his family. The retired-colonel grandfather (Tom Bloom) has Alzheimer’s. And the daughter, Beauty (Taylor Richardson), eats tree bark and drinks blue house paint.
Between acts, Heidle includes an interlude in which he takes us inside the mother’s womb so we can witness her twins’ extreme anxiety as they are about to be born. Playing the two fetuses, Quinto and Hutchison are dressed as vaudevillians. I originally found myself “mildly amused” by this scene. The second time around, it came off downright harrowing, in part because of the performances — Quinto’s Fetus is confident and filled with joyous anticipation, Hutchison’s Fetus is scared to death (literally) — and in part because of the work of the superb design team (Mimi Lien, Asta Bennie Hostetter, David Weiner, and Lindsay Jones).
In the second act, “Smokefall” turns into a puzzle for the audience to identify who’s who. Hutchison and Tunney return as their characters’ much younger selves, as does Bloom, who also essays the role of his unborn grandson as an old man. Richardson returns as Beauty about 80 years later, but still looks like an adolescent. And Quinto continues to play Footnote but adds another role, that of Beauty’s nephew, a.k.a., Fetus Two, a.k.a. Samuel.
I enjoyed “Smokefall” much more the second time around, and now see my “Thornton Wilder on acid” quote as a compliment. The play is as audacious as it is full of itself. I also have to report that my guest left at intermission.