Photo by Carol Rosegg
By Rachel Axler. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. The Women's Project at the Julia Miles Theatre. Through Feb. 7.
Critics seem engaged by Rachel Axler's dark comedy about childbirth, in which a couple gives birth to an indescribable deformity; the word "interesting" comes up in even a few of the less admiring reviews. But while a number of critics find no fault with the play's sharp, unpredictable humor, with Pam MacKinnon's brisk direction, or with the performances, particularly Cassie Beck as the horrified new mom, many find fault with the play's craft and execution, with responses ranging from admiring but puzzled to intrigued but dismissive. Axler's background as a writer for the TV shows The Daily Show and Parks and Recreation gets mentioned as either an asset or a liability, depending on the critic.
Time Out NY A
(Adam Feldman) The mysterious newborn in Rachel Axler’s smart, piquant Smudge is not lovable-looking...The remarkable Beck, who has quickly become one of the city’s essential actors, gives Colby an original comic edge and a sympathetic stubbornness, with strong support from Greg Keller as Colby’s earnest, philosophically adrift husband and Brian Sgambati as his frat-boyish older brother. In some sense, Axler’s dark comedy—alertly directed by Pam MacKinnon for the momentum building Women’s Project—is a horror story: a parent’s nightmare rendered with sometimes lyrical surrealism...A meditation on ambiguity and ambivalence, Smudge also illustrates ambition: a parent’s, thwarted, and a playwright’s, achieved.
(Marilyn Stasio) 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...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.
The New York Times B+
(Rachel Saltz) Parenthood never looked weirder or more terrifying than it does in “Smudge”...Ms. Beck plays the freaked-out Colby just right. She is smart, reasonable and wry, and confronted with a nightmare for which she is responsible. Mr. Keller is good too, even if Nick seems more contrived, as does his job...“Smudge,” stylishly directed by Pam MacKinnon and given a spare, almost clinical look by Ms. Sissons, can feel dramatically underpowered at times. Still, it’s nearly always interesting. Ms. Axler has a comic’s gift for language that is precise and imaginative, but never showy. What gives the play its charge is how Ms. Axler taps into a primal fear — giving birth to a monster — and then calmly considers it from all angles. She has a lightness of touch, especially in the scenes with Colby, that makes the dark undertow all the more affecting.
(Andy Buck) What better way is there to mark the age of Jon, Kate, and Octomom than with a play that explores the creepy secrets of childrearing? Look no further than Emmy Award-winner Rachel Axler's dark, serious, and very intelligent comedy...The problem, however, with writing a play that centers around a smudge (even one with the elaborate name of Cassandra) is to engage not only the minds of the viewers but their hearts as well, as the couple's marriage begins to crumble under the weight of this tragedy...Director Pam MacKinnon's frequent use of distancing effects, such as when Beck marks the end of Colby's pregnancy by yanking the padding out of her shirt and handing it abruptly to her fellow actor, adds to the problem. Given Axler's already outrageous premise, occasional monologues, and snappy one-liners, such Brechtian moments seem unnecessary.
New York Post B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) In an era of supermoms, it's rather refreshing to see that lack of motherly instinct, and the show never turns into an against-all-odds love story. Instead, Axler quickly and successfully sets up an ominous mood: Cassandra's big, clunky pram recalls the one from "Rosemary's Baby," and the unseen baby seems able to telepathically control her feeding tubes...Directed with brisk matter-of-factness by Pam MacKinnon, "Smudge" at its best recalls the work of author Judy Budnitz, who brilliantly describes surreal domestic nightmares with a logic all their own. But Axler doesn't go far enough...Mental illness, the expectations placed on mothers, the very issue of what makes someone human are no small topics, but here they're brushed off almost as soon as they're raised.
Village Voice B-
(Alexis Soloski) Though it flirts with satire and absurdism, it ultimately settles for a disappointingly conservative resolution...The play is at its best when Axler uses lively language to detail Colby's ambivalence, as when she torments the baby with a stuffed animal made entirely of arms and legs. "I call him Mister Limbs," says Colby. "He has everything you don't. Plus? Water-absorbent." Alas, the play's arc is rather soppy, and Axler's barbs give way to a sentimental conclusion—trading unsettling dissonance for a stale lullaby.
(Karl Levett) There is a distinctly ambitious imagination at work here, and the effort is certainly brave, if, unhappily, not very successful...Axler is unable to find a cohesive style to express this tricky material. In reaching for a kind of comic edginess, the play walks a rocky path between naturalism and absurdity in its attempt to convey a situation that is unspeakably sad. These two aspects, unfortunately, have a way of neutralizing each other, often resulting in an exercise in uneasiness. Just as the playwright is brave, so are the performers, under the sure direction of Pam MacKinnon.
(Martin Denton) I kept wondering: is Cassandra a human baby? Has she a heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas, skin, and so on? Is she not as malformed as Colby believes? Is she a thing of science fiction (though the naturalistic trappings of the play constantly argue against that thesis)? Is Smudge some kind of allegory? In the end, I have to say that I gave up trying to figure out what a smudge/baby might be. Axler's primary theme seems to be that people need to listen to each other—to really hear each other—and the play's arc tracks Colby and Nick's movement toward appreciating that idea and the power of their coupling. But Axler and, especially, MacKinnon put a lot of stuff in the way of that simple story of love and discovery, stuff that seems to be important but that I couldn't make much sense of...Axler's ideas here are intriguing and the play has an interesting haunting quality that lingers. But her craftsmanship feels inconsistent.
That Sounds Cool D+
(Aaron Riccio) The cute charms of this awkwardly dark comedy fail to develop--the downside of a background in sitcoms. Nick attempts to parent his intubated, limbless, and non-responsive baby with a stuffed and smiling carrot; Colby tells her child how much she doesn't love it, chopping sleeves off of onesies and downing cheesecakes; and the nerdish Nick's outsized brother--and boss--Pete (Brian Sgambati), shows up in order to verify that the baby is not some Albee-ish metaphor for a failing marriage...It's not that Smudge isn't interesting--it's that it's written sloppily and executed poorly, almost as if Axler were trying to give birth to a good play, only to somehow, well... smudge it.
Time Out NY A 13; Variety A 13; The New York Times B+ 11; Theatermania B 10; New York Post B 10; VV B- 9; Backstage C 7; Nytheatre.com C- 6; That Sounds Cool D+ 5; TOTAL: 84/9=9.33 (B-)