Monday, February 1, 2010



A play by Rachel Axler/
Directed by Pamela MacKinnon

Starring Cassie Beck, Greg Keller and Brian Sgambati

Performances through February 7, 2010

The Women’s Project, 424 West 55th Street


Essentially a one-joke skit extended to 80 minutes, Smudge is Rachel Axler’s absurdist and blackly comic study of a married couple’s attempt to cope with the ultimate parenting difficulty: their newborn daughter is a hideously deformed, one-eyed creature with no limbs. (No, this is not an adaptation of the schlocky ‘70s horror flick, It’s Alive!)
When Cassandra is born, father Nick—who works with his older brother Pete at the local census office—takes to her immediately, pretending not to notice her deformities and calling her his beautiful daughter. That he never calls his mother any more or takes baby pictures has wisecracking Pete wondering what’s going on at home. As for mother Colby, she is repulsed by her daughter and goes to great lengths to avoid caring for or even interacting with her new offspring, instead eating the Junior’s cheesecake that was one of her luxuries while pregnant.

Axler’s plot moves along a fairly mundane path: Nick starts messing up at work, reading philosophical tomes and planting bizarre questions about killing God’s creatures that are outside the census bureau’s purview; while Colby slowly becomes more maternal with Cassandra, which begins after she sews a toy out of the sleeves she cut off from her clothes. Too bad Axler’s insight into how this couple deals with their situation is so clich├ęd, highlighted by a semi-happy ending of understanding and maturity that seems merely tacked on.

Axler comes up with several good one-liners, which isn’t surprising, considering that she wrote for The Daily Show and the sitcom Parks and Recreation. But her couple, caught between the playwright’s first instinct (absurdity) and fall-back position at the end (realism), are too obviously manipulated, and the final result falls far short of her set-up.

Pam MacKinnon’s breezy direction focuses on the unseen baby, whose carriage is criss-crossed by various tubes and emits flashing lights and beeps to convey her own responses to what’s going on around her. Cassie Beck’s Colby, Greg Keller’s Nick and Brian Sgambati’s Pete are pitch-perfect, yet the actors and their characters are, finally, undermined by their author.

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