Cinemas attempted Smell-O-Vision for the first time in 1960. During screenings of Scent of Mystery, an international picaresque featuring Denholm Elliott, Peter Lorre, and Elizabeth Taylor, smells such as port wine, coffee, and shoe polish wafted around the movie theater. The film failed to garner ticket sales or critical plaudits, so the technique has since lain mostly fallow. Yet playwright Joseph Goodrich and director Nick Faust partially resurrect it with Smoke and Mirrors, which offers plenty of off-putting aromas, intentional or otherwise.
The play takes place in the smoking room of an unnamed corporation, so expect to smell cigarettes—those gamey herbal ones Actors’ Equity insists on. There’s also the flowery air freshener one character lavishly sprays, trying to disguise the reek of her bloodstained co-workers. And one mustn’t neglect the faint stink of the stage vomit, meant to represent the regurgitated rancid tacos that several characters spew. Ah, the sensory delights of live theater.
In the script’s stage directions, Goodrich recommends a wall of “clear glass or plastic” placed between the actors and the audience, designed to keep the smoke from seeping out. Faust has refused that wall, a somewhat confrontational maneuver. But the nasty olfactory sensations that result are the liveliest element in Goodrich’s play. Otherwise, Smoke and Mirrors rates as an undistinguished workplace comedy-drama, though one freighted with socio-political concerns. Goodrich offers a dystopian office space—witness the gore-coated workers and toxic cafeteria fare. All the workers seem affected by violent crime. One has a brother in jail,
another a sister, a third boasts a murdered wife. While the particulars of their work remain unclear, the job entails lots of security I.D.s and underarm holsters.
For most of the play, Goodrich and Faust manage to successfully juxtapose this menace against the naturalistic smoking-room chitchat. But the equilibrium unbalances as soon as actual content enters the room. Late in the play, questions of civil liberties suddenly emerge, injecting a seriousness the play hasn’t earned and never recovers from. This discourse never rises above the facile. Take, for example, the screed from which the play takes its title: A character complains that one shouldn’t “believe them lying bitches in the White House. Believe your paycheck, what I say. Smoke and mirrors, man. That’s all it is. Smoke and mirrors.” It’s a point, but a stale one. Smoke and Mirrors—and its audience—could do with some fresh air.