On Theater: 'Smokefall' as puzzling as its name

When playwright Noah Haidle was constructing his latest concoction, "Smokefall," now premiering at South Coast Repertory, it's quite possible that he was haunted by the spirit of Thornton Wilder, whose influence pervades this circuitous modern fantasy.

Not only does Wilder's "stage manager" device for his classic play "Our Town" appear in the form of what Haidle calls "Footnote," to narrate the current action and forecast the future, but the third segment of this brief triptych descends to the level of absurdist artistic chaos found in Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." Impressive inspiration, since both won Pulitzer Prizes.

Haidle certainly is no stranger to SCR. His "Mr. Marmalade" and "Princess Marjorie" both premiered here, and the Costa Mesa company also produced his "Saturn Returns," probably his best effort of the three. So now we know what to expect, namely the unexpected, when Haidle's name appears on a program.

In "Smokefall" (the title is unexplained), however, Haidle seems to have gone around the bend much like his goofy elderly character, the Colonel, who dresses in uniform each day and takes the family dog for a walk — so that he can find his way home.

After an opening segment that borders on normalcy, introducing the eccentric characters of an off-the-wall middle-American Midwestern family, Haidle heads to Fantasyland. Part Two consists of two unborn twins waxing eloquent on philosophical matters, while the third element breaks all boundaries of rhyme and reason.

Directed by Anne Kauffman, "Smokefall" effectively skewers the family unit as it introduces the Colonel, as well as a pregnant mother, her mute daughter, who consumes dirt and paint, an uncommunicative father and the aforementioned "Footnote."

Veteran actor Orson Bean heads the cast as the old codger, gingerly feeling his way through life in an engaging performance. Heidi Dippold acts the "glowing" mother and mom-to-be with a sunny disposition that seems out of sync with her surroundings.

Her teenage daughter, known as Beauty (Carmela Corbett), stopped talking three years before because, as she put it, "I have nothing more to say." She does, however, rediscover her voice late in the play when she returns dressed like Nanook of the North for a chat with Bean's character, now known as Johnny.

Leo Marks paces the stage as Footnote, commenting on the action but not engaging in it as Wilder's Stage Manager does. He and Corey Brill, who also briefly plays the vacant father, team up to represent the in-utero twins, who seem to have absorbed college educations during the pregnancy.

All this weirdness transpires on a four-room, two-level set immaculately designed by Marsha Ginsberg and nicely lit by David Weiner. Melanie Watnick's costumes, especially the Colonel's military getup, are quite effective — though the embellishments on Bean's uniform late in the play are puzzling.

Marks comments, late in the play, that "apple pie and cider are available in the lobby," and, sure enough, they are. It's another attempt to engage an audience that may be somewhat unengageable at that point.

From a playwright whose first three productions at SCR were quite entrancing, "Smokefall" represents a step backward for Haidle. It's a strange blend of intellectual and familial farce earnestly mounted but ultimately unfulfilling.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Smokefall"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until April 28 (no evening performance on the 28th)

Cost: $20 to $70

Information: (714) 708-5555

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