For signs of intelligent life in the theatrical universe, I hereby refer you to “Smudge,” Rachel Axler’s pitch-black comedy about a young couple reacting to the birth of a severely deformed child. In the horridly funny tradition of “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” the traumatized mother discovers that a dark, despairing sense of humor proves a more effective way of coping with the tragedy than rage, denial or hubby’s self-delusional acceptance of the unacceptable. Kudos to the “NEA-rejected” Women’s Project, as the unfunded nonprofit company wishes itself known, for its dazzling work on a daring piece.
Two-time Emmy-winning TV writer Axler, a staff scribe on “The Daily Show,” seamlessly adapts her telly-vision style to the stage with “Smudge.” Title comes from the first word that comes to mind when Colby (Cassie Beck) gets a glimpse of her infant daughter, grotesquely described as having no arms or legs, an undeveloped skeletal structure and only one (beautiful, luminous blue-green) eye in her misshapen head. Leaving husband Nick (Greg Keller) to bond with the helpless creature, the horrified Colby runs for the hills.
Since it’s highly improbable that such a severely compromised fetus would have been carried to term, it’s a fair assumption that the playwright is speaking in metaphorical tongues about postpartum depression. Or maybe not. For all the improbability of the play’s macabre premise (reflected in the visual severity of Narelle Sissons’ stark set), the overall style of Pam MacKinnon’s stringently focused production is grounded in realism.
Keller couldn’t be sweeter as Nick, who outdoes Mia Farrow in his instant adoration of the devil’s spawn he christens Cassandra. Whatever this disarming actor is thinking of as he dangles a toy carrot over the baby carriage that has been retrofitted with IV drips and flashing lights and beeping machinery, he coos like any doting dad over the joy he sees in his little darling’s “sparkling” blue eye.
The crushing irony of Axler’s humor weighs heavily on Nick, who takes a philosophical approach to Cassandra’s condition. “It may just be that she hasn’t smiled yet because so far, she hasn’t really found anything that funny,” he tells himself.
That theory doesn’t cut any ice with Colby, who dismisses his attempt to entertain the unresponsive infant with a stuffed carrot as “creepy — not to mention completely unrealistic.” Nick’s self-deluding optimism doesn’t work any better on his down-to-earth brother, Pete, played with robust insensitivity by Brian Sgambati, impatiently waiting for a glimpse — or even a photo — of his niece.
For all the coded interplay between the two brothers, Colby is the centerpiece of the drama in this troubled household. Beck vibrates with coiled anger as she stalks the stage, biting out Axler’s bitterly funny lines that fly in the face of all conventional wisdom about maternal love. In the play’s most bizarre image, Colby viciously cuts off all the arms and legs of Cassie’s little onesies, fashioning them into a grotesque stuffed toy that she waves over the frantically beeping carriage.
If it doesn’t have limbs, it doesn’t need sleeves,” she reasons. To Axler’s way of thinking, it’s a perfectly rational statement — and a rare and wonderful insight into the mind of a woman who is too honest to lie.