Chicago swooned over an earlier production of “Smokefall,” a work written by playwright-screenwriter Noah Haidle (“Stand Up Guys”) and pristinely directed at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater by Anne Kauffman. But it turns out the show is yet another domestic drama about the all-American nuclear family in extremis, this one trying hard to distinguish itself from other domestic dramas about the all-American nuclear family in extremis by stylistically swerving from realism to surrealism. Zachary Quinto (“The Glass Menagerie”) plays both a narrator named “Footnote” and a fetus, which should give you some idea.
Four generations of a family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are lucky to live in the modern split-level home — built of some kind of unfinished particle board and constructed along stark geometric lines — designed for them by Mimi Lien. It doesn’t seem very comfortable, but architecturally, it looks like a work of art.
Violet, the homebound housewife played with saintly forbearance by Robin Tunney (“Prison Break,” “The Mentalist”), lives in the kitchen and is heavily pregnant with twins — whom she forces everyone in the family to address in utero. Husband Daniel (Brian Hutchison, looking like a rabbit watching an owl swooping down on him) is overwhelmed by it all, and when he leaves for work this morning, he keeps driving and never returns home.
Violet’s father, known as the Colonel because he was a colonel in the army and wears his uniform every day, lives mostly in his bedroom upstairs. Mustn’t forget about the Colonel, although he’s suffering from dementia and has clearly forgotten everyone else and how to find his way home from a walk.
The last member of the household is 16-year-old Beauty (Taylor Richardson), who hasn’t spoken a word in three years (“I have nothing more to say”), drinks paint and dines on dirt, rocks and tree bark. “Like in most families,” as the playwright inelegantly phrases it, “disturbing behavior that happens daily is ignored, and they do, every day, they choose to ignore it.”
No one says anything the least bit interesting, and whatever we know about these people we learn from Quinto, who is called Footnote and plays the narrator. That is, until he and Hutchison change into velvet jackets and bow ties and climb into a cube (Violet’s uterus) for some vaudeville patter as the unborn twins. They don’t have anything intelligent to say, either.
The play gets even more whimsical after intermission, as time passes and future descendants born to this undistinguished family continue to blame original sin or moral determinism — or bad genes — for their feckless lives.