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Smokefall at Goodman Theatre: Theater review

Noah Haidle's affecting new play takes a fractured, poetic look at family and mortality.

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Eric Slater and Guy Massey in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Mike Nussbaum, Katherine Keberlein and Eric Slater in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Eric Slater and Katherine Keberlein in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum and Eric Slater in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Catherine Combs in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

Photograph: Liz Lauren

Katherine Keberlein and Catherine Combs in Smokefall at Goodman Theatre

The knock on young playwright Noah Haidle, for those who knock him, is that he employs whimsy in place of story. In pieces like 2006's Vigils, in which a young widow keeps her late husband's soul in a bedroom trunk, or the same year's Rag and Bone, which has a ladder store serving as a front for black-market metaphysical heart transplants, the argument goes, the Juilliard grad trots out aggressive magical realism that masks a lack of real insight.

Those inclined against Haidle might assert the same for his new Smokefall, running at the Goodman as a co-world premiere with South Coast Rep, where it played last spring (though it seems the script and production have changed greatly since that staging, and possibly since the early previews here). This fractured, poetic look at family and mortality follows multiple generations in an unreal Grand Rapids (the playwright's hometown): the aged, doddering Colonel (Mike Nussbaum); his daughter Violet (Katherine Keberlein), pregnant with twins, and her husband, Daniel (Eric Slater), as well as the couple's 16-year-old daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs).

We're introduced to the family by a narrating gent named Footnote (Guy Massey), who interrupts the action at regular intervals to provide third-person-omniscient context about the characters' pasts, futures and presents—even the unborn ones: "The twins are mistakes," Footnote tells us, "and suspect as much." The next scene brings us into Violet's womb to meet the twins, played by Massey and Slater as philosophizing fetuses in white tuxedo jackets, arguing over original sin and calming their fears by singing "Send in the Clowns." Oh, and I failed to mention that their sister is mute by choice and eats only non-foods like earth, tree bark and paint.

The potential for over-preciousness is there, clearly; it extends even into the play's program, which provides a glossary of terms that's either cutesy or condescending, depending on your mood. But I'd contend that this new work, with its deliberate evocations of Thornton Wilder, earns its emotion in ways Haidle's more academic earlier works may not have. With its lyrical, nonlinear structure—the second act finds future generations colliding with past events to weigh if anything is ever worth it—Smokefall feels rather like a cycle of connected short stories, brought to rich life by canny director Anne Kauffman and a cast that strikes a remarkable balance between absurd and affecting.

They're led by the heroic Nussbaum, who deftly negotiates the curves and crags of his multiple characters. Slater and Massey make a terrific pair of unborn vaudevillians in a sequence that also shows off the impressive versatility of Kevin Depinet's scenic design; Keberlein is adept at delineating the mask of cheerful strength that keeps Violet's fear in check, and Combs, making her Chicago debut, smartly underplays Beauty's quirks.

In its echoing of Wilder with a dram or two of whimsy, Smokefall recalls for me Will Eno's Middletown—a parallel call back to Our Town tempered with modern existential preoccupations. Every love story is a tragedy because its ending is built into its beginning, says the Colonel, still grieving his great love. Haidle introduces impossible elements to emphasize the impossibility of the things we do anyway.