Smudge by Rachel Axler, Apollinaire Theatre Company, Chelsea Theatre Works, 3/23/12-4/21/12, http://www.apollinairetheatre.com/productions/productions.html, in repertory with Cut by Crystal Skillman.
Reviewed by Gillian Daniels
(Chelsea, MA) New parents Colby (Allison Meirowitz) and Nick (Chris LaVoie) find themselves with a newborn of monstrous description. Multi-colored feeding tubes pour upward out of her bassinet and occasional beeps indicate a life support system, but said child is never seen. We’re only told she has one eye and a body that narrows to a single limb. Characters imply the baby may not even be human, but regardless of what she is, the newborn certainly isn’t what was expected.
Smudge is a play that explores a great deal of pain. Playwright Rachel Axler, well known for her work on The Daily Show and Parks and Recreation, takes on a bit more than she can chew.
Axler manipulates expectations, hinting that the baby may be more than it appears but keeping the story at the level of metaphor. What parents haven’t grappled with confusion and loss when faced with a worst-case scenario? The faint-hearted would do well to avoid this show while expectant parents may find Smudge instructive if sad.
The show would be impossible to watch without light, comic moments about eating cheesecake and Nick’s work at the Census Bureau. Nick’s brother and co-worker, Pete (Michael Fisher), is particularly hilarious and lights up the stage with his presence. The comedy, however, remains pitch black.
It’s a process for Colby and Nick to accept the alien-ness of their newborn. Meirowitz’s character, a nervous and fragile first time mother, is repulsed at the result of her pregnancy and rejects the child altogether. Her performance is strong though her character’s initial cruelty makes it hard to sympathize with her.
LaVoie, meanwhile, seems lost in how to approach his new role as a father, especially when the child in question is so unconventional.
For me, it’s a little too convenient that the baby, named Cassandra, is out of view. If the play is really a metaphor for parents dealing with a disabled newborn, then further dehumanizing her by implying she’s alien is troubling. Instead, this is a play about parents horrified about an idea. They haven’t had a child that’s an individual or a person but an abstract concept. Axler walks a dangerous, politically gray area with this story, one that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with while sitting in the theater.
The three-man play isn’t really about the baby, though, but about the couple’s private moments, their struggles to understand what went wrong when, really, there is no explanation. Their baby girl has all the appearances of an alien but their reaction to her is all too human. Their story is a bleak one, as unexpected as their offspring.