Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Despite Sparkling Critical Acclaim, Goodman's 'Smokefall' Fails to Light My Fire -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Noah Haidle
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 26

The theater critic I most read and respect--the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones--absolutely loves Smokefall, a drama by Noah Haidle that he called the "best new play in Chicago" in 2013 and now likes even better as the work has been re-staged by the Goodman in their larger Albert Theatre.

Especially given my regard for the Goodman Theatre, I feel it only fair to begin my review by sharing that much more knowledgeable and esteemed critics enjoyed Smokefall far more than I did.

For in telling you that the piece largely left me cold and uncaring--despite the wondrous 90-year-old Mike Nussbaum being entirely wondrous, a good amount of silly humor and points to Haidle for originality--it's entirely possible that I just missed the brilliance, beauty and profundity.

Not that I couldn't sense that there was some of each there.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
In crafting a strangely-structured parable about a Grand Rapids, MI family across multiple generations, Haidle--along with Goodman director Anne Kauffman--incorporates such novel aspects as a narrator who recites footnotes onstage, a mute girl who eats Earth and drinks paint, a pair of in utero twins who engage in slapstick dialogue and sing Sondheim, and over 150 years worth of characters named John, principally embodied by Nussbaum.

Yet in spite of the inventiveness, or perhaps, given the weirdness, because of it, Smokefall--which I entered excited to see and remained attentive to throughout--never sufficiently engaged me in its characters, storytelling or significance.

I don't think that I'm giving much away to suggest that it's a story about life, love, perseverance and continuity, none of which are trifling matters.

Clearly they resonated with Jones, Weiss and enough audiences in the Goodman's Owen Theatre for the work to be uniquely re-presented at the top of the flagship subscription series in the Albert.

But for a show so supposedly fantastic, it was notable that while the Sunday night crowd bestowed appreciative applause, not a single audience member I saw rose to give it a standing ovation.

Perhaps also reflecting a dichotomy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, on the TimeOut Chicago website, the current production of Smokefall is given 5 stars by critic Kris Vire, but the User Ratings reflect just 3 stars.

Through conversation with friends and relatives who have also seen the play, and in hearing comments of audience members after the performance, I further sense a more muted or mixed response seemingly more akin to mine.

Which isn't to dissuade the curious from seeing for themselves, nor to disavow those who were enraptured. 

Any chance to witness Mike Nussman act upon a local stage is, in itself, entirely worthwhile, while all the actors do a fine job enacting this strange play. I found Katherine Keberlein particularly engaging in the role of Violet.

And I have no reason not to hope that if you do check Smokefall out before it closes 3 weeks hence, you'll absolutely love it--like many clearly have.

But suffice it to say, rightly or wrongly, I didn't.

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