Catherine Combs, Mike Nussbaum, and Guy Massey
Catherine Combs, Mike Nussbaum, and Guy Massey Credit: Liz Lauren

Noah Haidle is the current king of theatrical quirk, having taken the title fair and square from his former playwriting teacher Christopher Durang. Haidle’s 2005 Rag and Bone concerns brothers who develop a trade in human hearts: they steal the cardiac muscles of sensitive people—a pediatrician who loves kids, a public defender who takes on the neediest clients, a poet—and sell them to the rich and emotionally numb. In Vigils, which premiered at Goodman Theatre in 2006, a widow keeps her dead husband’s soul in the hope chest beside her bed. And Haidle’s best-known script, Mr. Marmalade, gives us four-year-old Lucy, who finds herself unhappily married to a narcissistic and abusive imaginary friend. As Kerry Reid noted in a Reader review a few years back, Haidle once told American Theatre magazine that he doesn’t “want to see any representation or mimesis of reality on stage. That’s just outdated and can be done so much better in film and TV.”

I don’t know—I’m ambivalent on the subject. (And so, apparently, is Haidle himself, inasmuch as he recently branched out into film, writing a 2012 buddy comedy called Stand Up Guys, with Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin as geriatric mobsters.) On the one hand, I can see his point: Why waste time reproducing the objective world onstage when you have the means to create an imaginative one at least theoretically capable of freeing you to express deeper truths? Naturalism, after all, is historically just a response to the empty spectacles and political complacency of late-19th-century European culture. There’s no reason to hold it in awe, especially with the millions of smartphones deployed now, recording every fucking thing.

On the other hand, so much of current quirkiness (including some of Haidle’s) comes across as collegiate exhibitionism—an excrescence of overencouraged MFA candidates writing for the approval of professors and foundations, more often than not in faux-innocent baby voices.

But in this case we’ve also got a compelling third hand: Haidle’s ambitious, goofy, very fine Smokefall, running now at Goodman in a “world-premiere coproduction” with South Coast Repertory.

You couldn’t ask for more quirk than Haidle supplies in this multigenerational family drama. There’s a quirky old grandpa called the Colonel, who dreams of his cherished, dead wife (“We loved each other on six continents”) while succumbing charmingly to decrepitude and dementia. A quirky teenager named Beauty, who stopped speaking at 13 (last words: “I have nothing more to say”) and subsists somehow on a diet of inedibles including dirt, tree bark, and house paint. A quirky pair of fetal twins, who have a long, in utero conversation (quoting Sondheim and Tolstoy) about the risks of being born. And not least of all, there’s a quirky narrator who’s generally nearby, adding what he calls “footnotes” to the action.

The thing is, the quirks in Smokefall aren’t just petty indulgences. Though ostentatious or misjudged at times—the conference between the twins outstays its welcome, devolving into cutesy cliches; Beauty’s blue-paint milk shake is too much of a stretch, abandoning the eccentric for the impossible—they’re part of an ultimately gorgeous whole. You might even say a vision. In its sweep and audacity, its somehow rueful cartoonishness, its leaps across time, and what turns out to be a clear-eyed unity, Smokefall reminds me of nothing so much as The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder’s nervy attempt to represent all of human history in the adventures of a single family.

Haidle doesn’t take us from cave life to nuclear war, as Wilder does. Time passes, sure, and cataclysms occur, yet Smokefall is more an epic of the human heart than of humanity itself. You can’t read Haidle’s earlier scripts without seeing that he’s got significant unfinished business having to do with the family. Fathers are notable by their absence. Mothers are unreachable. Death and the longing for the dead are constants. In that sense his plays resemble Steven Spielberg movies, forever returning to some childhood sticking point. With its offer of a melancholy sort of closure, Smokefall seems to be a culmination—the work in which Haidle comes unstuck.

Anne Kauffman’s production does a great job of helping to pry him loose, as it maintains a superb clarity through complex changes of tone and time. So do the actors. Katherine Keberlein establishes herself as the sane, compassionate soul of things as Beauty’s mom, Violet. Eric Slater is just the right amount of ambiguous as Violet’s depressed husband, Daniel. Guy Massey makes a wily narrator, disclosing his secrets as he goes. Ditto Catherine Combs as Beauty. And Mike Nussbaum is simply phenomenal in his 89th year, playing two vivid variations on old men. Set designer Kevin Depinet, who did wonderfully atmospheric work on Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current staging of Cyrano de Bergerac, turns the family home into another character here.