Smokefall at the Lucille Lortel Theater: What's Going on in that Womb?

Forget Cats. So much has spun off T. S. Eliot's poetry, the Wasteland and Four Quartets scribe would be especially laughing from the grave with Noah Haidle's surreal play Smokefall, a MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theater. If you pay attention to the Playbill's author note where Haidle claims to be living in Detroit with his wife and their nine cats, you can guess what you are in for. Details matter. The colonel (Tom Bloom), one of play's characters, has dementia and still manages to advise, never go to Detroit. Among the other odd characters residing in the family's house in Grand Rapids, Michigan is his daughter Violet (Robin Tunney in her stage debut), pregnant with twin boys, and granddaughter Beauty (Taylor Richardson), silent for most of the play. She's decided never to speak again after hearing her parents quarrel. Her diet consists of earth, tree bark and paint, particularly of a sea green hue. Picky, picky! Most formidable is Footnote (Zachary Quinto), a narrator of this family's lore, a philosopher, who doubles as one of the twins about to be born. Yes, prepare for birth!

In a second story room, a box with light bulbs all around suggesting vaudeville, Fetus One (Brian Hutchison) and Fetus Two (Quinto) in red suits and spats prepare for their dramatic entrance, discussing the vicissitudes of life in the womb, family history, and Foucault. Timing, as they say, can't beat it. Needless to say, things don't quite go as planned. The birth set piece is alone worth the price of admission. For all its bizarre detail, Smokefall is so terrifically moving, it stands as one of the best plays I've seen this season, owing to the writing, acting, strong direction from Anne Kauffman, and Mimi Lien's exceptional scenic design which manages to have, in the second act, an apple tree growing robust through the house. But, Edenic, it's not. We are witnessing the cycle of life, with a message. There is a "Burial of the Dead" at play's end: one character says, "I can't do this alone," to which another says, "Here I come."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.