If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid, he might have written “Smokefall,” a new play by Noah Haidle being given its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. The title, however, comes from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“The moment in the draughty church at smokefall/Be remembered; involved with past and future”), and Haidle’s play bears no resemblance to anything written by that poet, stoned or sober.
I was mildly intrigued with “Smokefall” when late in the play it appears that Violet (Heidi Dippold) has given birth to her own father, the Colonel (Orson Bean). Then it soon became apparent that the same actor, Bean, is merely double-cast, playing the grandfather and the grandson Johnny, who in the previous scene is only identified as Fetus Two (Leo Marks). Fetus Two is the one who survives childbirth to become Johnny, while the other, Fetus One (Corey Brill), dies by strangling himself with his umbilical chord. The scene is spectacularly staged by director Anne Kauffman. As fetuses, Brill and Marks perform a fairly amusing stand-up routine that includes their singing “Send in the Clowns.”
What else happens in “Smokefall”? Violet has a daughter, Beauty (Carmela Corbett), who doesn’t speak but drinks eggshell-blue paint when she isn’t consuming dirt from the back yard. Violet’s husband, Daniel (Brill), announces early in the play that he’ll go on a car trip after breakfast that will prevent him from ever seeing any of his family again.
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Actually, he doesn’t say that. We learn that bit of information from the play’s Rod Serling-lookalike narrator (Marks). (This is the Thorton Wilder part.) He isn’t credited as the narrator but rather Footnote, because when he speaks he prefaces everything with “footnote” one, two and so on.
The characters in Haidle’s play don’t do much. Instead, Footnote tells us about them. As in, “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.” Or, “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 of these footnotes, although due to a major jump in time the last two footnotes are identified as numerals 20,775,420 and 20,775,421. Theatergoers have never so deserved that scene break.
“Smokefall” is about a very deep subject — time — but someone forgot to tell Haidle that he’s writing for South Coast Rep, not Simon & Schuster.
(Segerstrom Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.; 507 seats, $70 top)
A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in one act by Noah Haidle. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Set, Marsha Ginsberg; costumes, Melanie Watnick; lighting, David Weiner; original music/sound design, Lindsay Jones. Opened April 5, 2013. Reviewed April 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
With: Heidi Dippold, Leo Marks, Orson Bean, Carmela Corbett, Corey Brill.