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updated: 10/18/2013 11:27 AM

Despite strong cast, theatricality undercuts Goodman's 'Smokefall'

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  • During a flashback depicting Dan and Violet's first date, Mike Nussbaum's protective father, left, quizzes Eric Slater's Dan while Violet (Katherine Keberlein), background, waits in Goodman Theatre's production of "Smokefall" directed by Anne Kauffman.

      During a flashback depicting Dan and Violet's first date, Mike Nussbaum's protective father, left, quizzes Eric Slater's Dan while Violet (Katherine Keberlein), background, waits in Goodman Theatre's production of "Smokefall" directed by Anne Kauffman.
    Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Twins in utero played by Eric Slater, left, and Guy Massey, croon show tunes and contemplate their futures in "Smokefall," a world premiere by Noah Haidle running through Nov. 3 at Goodman Theatre.

      Twins in utero played by Eric Slater, left, and Guy Massey, croon show tunes and contemplate their futures in "Smokefall," a world premiere by Noah Haidle running through Nov. 3 at Goodman Theatre.
    courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 

Is life worth living?

Can love, impermanent though it may be, and joy, however fleeting, outweigh the disappointment, loss and grief we experience over a lifetime?

Those questions drive Noah Haidle's "Smokefall," a tender, amusing, albeit imitative dramedy that opened Monday at the Goodman Theatre under the sure and steady direction of Anne Kauffman, who also helmed the premiere earlier this year at California's South Coast Repertory, which co-produced the play with Goodman.

Inspired by "Our Town," Thornton Wilder's meditation on mortality and community, Haidle's surreal "Smokefall" unfolds as a contemplation on family and a testament to love.

The action centers on a Grand Rapids, Mich., family: the Colonel (played with warmth and vigor by Mike Nussbaum); his daughter Violet (the luminous, intuitive Katherine Keberlein) who is pregnant with twins; her husband, Daniel (Eric Slater); and their teenage daughter, Beauty (a delicately expressive Catherine Combs).

Kevin Depinet's terrific angled set makes clear that not all is well within this all-American family, a fact Footnote (Guy Massey as Haidle's version of Wilder's Stage Manager) confirms early on.

"Like most families," observes Footnote, "disturbing behavior that happens daily is ignored."

The widowed Colonel suffers from intermittent dementia. Discontented Daniel is getting ready to bolt. Beauty, who eats dirt and drinks paint, hasn't spoken for three years. The responsibility for managing their collective dysfunction, and for keeping despair at bay, falls to the devoted, perceptive Violet.

The first act concludes with a departure that heralds the twins' arrival, which occurs in the deliciously funny second act. But not before we're treated to a thoroughly entertaining combination comedy routine and philosophical discourse courtesy of the in-utero fetuses, formally attired in matching white dinner jackets and crimson bow ties.

The twins suspect (correctly) they are unplanned, although not unloved. They're amusingly played by Slater, whose wary Fetus One fears leaving the security of the womb, and Massey, whose optimistic Fetus Two can't wait to embrace the new adventure and assures his brother they will confront life's challenges together.

"We'll always be close enough to hold hands if we need to," he insists in one of the play's most poignant exchanges.

Set some seven decades in the future, act three unfolds as a reunion between the nonagenarian Beauty (the restless, weary Combs), who still looks like a teenager, and her septuagenarian brother Johnny (also played by Nussbaum). They meet for the first time in 65 years at the family home, unchanged except for the addition of an enormous apple tree, whose ingenious, abstract representation comes courtesy of set designer Depinet.

The encounter, which Haidle juxtaposes with flashbacks of their parents' courtship, serves the predictable purpose of putting old phantoms to rest.

Haidle's humor is gentle and his dialogue, while a bit precious at times, is lovely. For the most part he keeps sentiment in check, although he does tiptoe up to the line separating sentimental from soppy more than once. Unfortunately, the play's self-conscious theatricality gets in the way of us connecting with the characters emotionally, despite the best efforts of Kauffman's fine ensemble.

Goodman's production is exceptionally well-cast. Slater and Massey's easy camaraderie, and their seamless give-and-take, suggest a pair of vaudeville veterans who've spent years perfecting their routine.

And the ever-engaging Nussbaum is entirely at home -- whether he's dancing a soft shoe with the Colonel's unborn grandsons, interrogating his future son-in-law or reflecting on finding purpose after a lifetime of searching. Moreover, Nussbaum makes palatable Haidle's platitudes about love and courage, which in lesser hands might come across as uninspired affirmations.

The same can be said of the excellent Keberlein. Her contained, deliberate portrayal suggests reservoirs of untapped strength within Violet, who understands her family in ways even they can't comprehend. "Smokefall" marks Keberlein's Goodman debut; here's hoping we don't have to wait long for her return.

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