I’d come to the Lucille Lortel for a preview of Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall,” but the play seemed to begin with a flashback to the 2013 “Glass Menagerie” revival, a production so fluid and dreamlike that one character made her “entrance” via the interior of a sofa.
Like “Smokefall”—now having its New York debut, on the heels of a hit run in Chicago—"Menagerie" began with narration from Zachary Quinto, the ultra-capable, sharp-featured actor celebrated most recently for his work as Mr. Spock in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise.
In “Menagerie,” Quinto was the free-spirited Tom Wingfield, who knew survival meant escape from his smothering mother. Here, in a haunting drama from MCC that combines magical realism with vaudevillian hucksterism, Quinto plays three characters, beginning with narrator “Footnote,” who, just like Tom, is here to guide us through the disintegration of his family.
“Footnote number nine,” Quinto intones, introducing the paterfamilias (Brian Hutchison) of a peculiar suburban foursome in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Like many truly unhappy people, Daniel can be the most charismatic person in any room. Lying in bed at night, he makes lists of all of his reasons to be grateful; but they only temporarily relieve his general sense of dread and malaise.”
“Smokefall” continues thusly, as if it were an old text requiring illumination and explanation, like the Bible, or a Shakespeare play (the title comes from a T.S. Eliot poem). One scene evokes “Hamlet” to startling effect, right down to poor Yorick’s excavated skull.
Aside from Hutchison’s Daniel, there is dutiful wife Violet (Robin Tunney, of TV’s “The Mentalist”); their daughter, “Beauty” (Taylor Richardson, a one-time Broadway “Annie”); and “The Colonel” (Tom Bloom), Violet’s widowed father, who still puts on his dress uniform every day, though he’s 77 and losing his faculties.
The set is a classic kitchen and living area, save for the fact it has a skin of raw particle board, flimsy and unfinished material for a family that can't persuasively cover its darker impulses.
“Smokefall” is full of surprises. In the second scene, we meet Violet’s unborn twins (Hutchison and Quinto, again, in what you can think of as a pair of in-utero, nearly full-term “carnies”), who embark on a what’s-the-meaning-of-existence conversation that has shades of “Godot.”
Time passes … for some of the characters. In the second act, an apple tree—a successor to one pronounced dead in the first act—has wormed its way through the home’s particle board, an intrusion the current resident uses as a conveniient excuse to avoid trips to the produce aisle.
MCC has pulled off a visually interesting feat, under the direction of Anne Kauffman (“The Nether”). There are some sweet moments showcasing the small ways in which these family members love one another. Violet, each day, undoes any progress her ill father has made on the jigsaw puzzle he adores, just so he will have something he enjoys, to keep his mind busy the next day.
A recurring theme is that there is no escape from your origins … but you’re likely to discover that what you "need" can be found there, anyway. Is this Buddhism? Some hazy, marijuana-fueled reimagining of “The Lion King”? I’m not sure, but it’s quite obvious that Haidle believes some things can keep growing, maturing, evolving and improving, even if they’re diseased.
“Smokefall,” presented by MCC Theater, through March 20 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Tickets: $49-$79. Call 212-727-7722.