In John Belluso’s “A Nervous Smile,” three tortured parents consider the unthinkable: abandoning their children. What’s most remarkable about Belluso’s final play (he died earlier this year at 36) is the degree of sympathy he evokes for characters who would attempt such a monstrous act.
Intl. City Theater’s West Coast debut production can’t hide this rough-hewn script’s bumps and faults, but it still hits like a gut punch. Belluso thrust bravely into territory few playwrights dare to explore; he will be missed.
The story involves a moneyed couple, Brian (Louis Lotorto) and Eileen (Francesca Casale), who are struggling to care for their teenage daughter with severe cerebral palsy. Nicole (Rebecca Jordan) is a single mother dealing with a similar plight: Her 18-year-old son is even more profoundly disabled.
They struck up a friendship through a parents’ support group, but over the years it turned into something more intimate — Eileen and Nicole became best buddies; later, Brian and Nicole began an affair.
Each member of the trio deals with the stress of long-term care-giving differently. Eileen is in booze- and drug-induced denial; Nicole is quietly desperate. Brian is a schemer who pours his hope for a better future into his romance with Nicole and an audacious plan: Why not simply start a new life somewhere else — without their children?
Eileen’s inherited fortune makes the scheme possible. She knows of her husband’s relationship with her former best friend, and she’s willing to give him half her fortune and jettison them both from her messy life. They’ll go to Argentina; she’ll head to England.
There are several implausibilities and plot holes on the way to the story’s point of reckoning, and a fourth character, a Russian nanny who spews Old World aphorisms between swigs of vodka, exists simply to provide a moral compass. Sadly, Belluso didn’t live long enough to polish his final work.
But he created three thorny and ambiguous roles — the kind of layered, conflicted characters actors love — and this cast clearly relishes the challenges.
Casale’s Eileen initially seems the least likable; garrulous and self-important, she teeters perilously close to hysteria. But Eileen’s actions gradually reveal a surprisingly different person — more generous, less flippant and cynical. Casale shapes an impressive arc.
Jordan coats Nicole in bitter brittleness formed from years of single-parent care-giving. A heartbreaking soliloquy late in the play makes us understand why she would entertain the notion of turning her back on her only child.
Lotorto has the cast’s toughest role as Brian. He’s the mastermind of the abandonment scheme, after all, and a growing selfishness undermines any compassion we might harbor about his loveless and problematic marriage. Lotorto is a likable performer, but he hasn’t quite mastered the part’s tricky subtext. Perhaps it’s an unsolvable problem.
Director Lynn Ann Bernatowicz has trouble with pacing and tone in the play’s first scene, a drunken, three-way conversation. But her approach improves as the script gains focus in the second act.
Don Llewellyn’s set, a swank Manhattan townhome, is dominated by a spidery chandelier that neatly reflects the characters’ tangled emotions. Other than that extravagance, it’s an elegant but soulless place — the perfect setting for such a cold-blooded plan to be hatched.