Directed by Anne Kauffman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.” (Jean Jacques Voltaire, “Candide” 1759)
No one can excel at magical realism as well as the genre’s founder Gabriel García Márquez whose short stories and novels use magical elements and events in otherwise ordinary and realistic situations and typically explore the theme of solitude. However, Noah Haidle has written a splendid play in which magical realism counterpoints a family drama with considerable success. There is even a bit of manic vaudeville thrown into the literary mix. After two productions in Chicago at the Goodman (2013 and 2014) “Smokefall” is being produced in New York by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The setting is a fictional “Father Knows Best” house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The inhabitants are anything but Father-Knows-Best-fare. The head of the household is the Colonel (played with a shattered sternness by Tom Bloom) whose accelerating dementia has required the return home of his daughter Violet (beautifully played by the remarkable Robin Tunney), her husband Daniel (played with deep disquietude by Brian Hutchison), and their daughter Beauty (played with a hopeful vacancy by Taylor Richardson). Violet is pregnant (due any day) with twins. Daniel has had enough of both marriage and Violet and is on his way out the door – for good. Hoping somehow to break the cycle of dysfunction, Beauty has sacrificed speaking and a normal diet, hoping eating dirt and drinking paint might distract her parents from bickering. Beauty’s disturbing behavior is ignored and the dissolution of the family system progresses.
However, the audience cannot and must not ignore the disturbing themes of Noah Haidle’s accomplished foray into magical realism. Those themes are best understood in a scene which unfortunately cannot be described here without a spoiler alert. In fact, much of the action in the play is so surprising it cannot be described in great detail without detracting from its visual and emotional impact. Time is of no importance in “Smokefall” and the four generations of fractured family collide on one another and meet one another in remarkable ways. The play’s narrator Footnote (played with a flawless intensity by Zachary Quinto) guides the audience through the manic matrix of Violet’s past, present, and future and the time-warped hesternal narratives of her forebears and offspring.
The first act of “Smokefall” is the stronger of the two. Playwright Noah Haidle establishes the essential themes of his play carefully and strongly. It is in the second act when the playwright tells and retells the same stories over and over again – and adds the seasoning of hopefulness – that the power of the first act diminishes. Overall, under Anne Kauffman’s direction, the cast portrays the host of characters with honesty and believability and leads the audience into the womb of wonder that is the autumnal smokefall of life.
The specter of T. S. Eliot pervades Mr. Haidle’s work and deepens the playwright’s exploration of humanity’s despair of residing in perpetuity just East of Eden. “Smokefall” begins to wobble when Mr. Haidle attempts to sugar-coat that interminable residency. The power of this interesting play is in its perception of the disquietude of humanity and its fear of never quite breaking the cycles of despair. Both Noah Haidle and Gabriel García Márquez understood this dilemma. In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel García Márquez writes, “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” “Smokefall” is at its best when its richly developed characters discover that they have and will continue to give birth to themselves forever.
It is all right for Violet’s grandson Samuel (also played by Mr. Quinto) to choose to “take care of his garden” as long as he understands that he is ambushed in yet “Another variation on the theme of a love that can’t cease transforming.”