Over lunch in Chicago's River North neighborhood the other day, the playwright Noah Haidle, a restless spirit, was chortling at a menu item at Restaurant Beatrix.
"Enlightened Caesar," he said. "That's really obnoxious." From there, Haidle, who is a member of the very select club of fairly significant American playwrights and screenwriters who happen to live within the boundaries of the city of Detroit, began a sardonic riff on the possibilities of any salad legitimately being able to claim such a state.
Haidle is a very interesting, warm, sociable, hyperarticulate man, one who has been through some personal stuff and writes very unusual and confounding plays.
"If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid, he might have written 'Smokefall,'" wrote the critic Robert Hofler, when the play premiered at the South Coast Repertory in California this year. Part of the plot involves two brothers, in vitro, debating whether or not it is a good idea to be born. "Smokefall" opens at the Goodman Theatre on Monday night; Anne Kauffman is the director. Things go from there.
Haidle's career has been, shall we say, jagged. He burst onto the theatrical scene not long after graduating from Princeton University. The Goodman Theatre, along with New York's Public Theater, was an early supporter of his work, a reflection of a creative mind that operates in any number of unusual ways. In 2006, when Haidle was just 27, the Goodman staged his "Vigils," a play about a bereaved woman who traps her late husband's soul in a box. Reaction in Chicago ranged from the admiring to the perplexed to the hostile.
A couple of years ago, following a bit of a personal crisis, Haidle found himself relocated to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he took a job teaching playwriting at a local college while living in his childhood home. His mother, it appears, had sensed a need and scooped him back up.
As Haidle tells it, he has spent the last couple of years re-centering himself and recalibrating his life.
But at the same time, he was waiting to see if one of his original screenplays, for a movie called "Stand Up Guys," would get made. It did. Directed by Fisher Stevens, the movie was released in February (its gross to date is about $3 million). Reviews were mixed, but then that often has been true of Haidle's plays, which tend to polarize. But the making of the movie certainly brought back Haidle's career and improved his financial situation. Clearly, it was all a tad surreal, even to a guy who naturally writes surreal plays.
"One minute I was reading lines to my mother in Grand Rapids," Haidle said. "The next minute I was able to take her to the set in Los Angeles where Al Pacino and Christopher Walken were reading the lines I had been reading to her. That was really nice to be able to do."
But Haidle — again, for personal reasons — decided not to stay in Los Angeles, as would most writers with such a movie, but to return to the Midwest. Hence, Detroit, where he is rooming with a pal.
"There is a little arts scene there," he said, talking of his group of Detroit friends, some of whom know about his life and career and some of whom do not.
He's also been working with a group of arts-oriented young people in that city, 16 of whom are coming to the Goodman to see his play.
"The entire aim of my life once was to get out of the Midwest," Haidle said of what sounds like it's become both a refuge and a muse. "But now I plan to stay."