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A CurtainUp Review
By Julia Furay
The title refers to the deformed infant, who is described as a girl (though the sex is up for debate) with one eye and no limbs. When we first meet the expectant parents, Colby and Nick (Cassie Beck and Greg Keller), they jokingly call the muddled figure on the ultrasound photo a smudge, and this ultimately becomes the name by which Colby cruelly taunts the infant. While Nick tries valiantly to bond with the infant, Colby refuses to even look at her, instead binging on cheesecake and repeatedly informing the baby just how awful and freaky she is.
Axler, an award-winning comedic television writer, has made this potentially disturbing play a lot more palatable with her deft comic touch. Thanks to the playwright's wit, Colby's sarcasm as well as Nick's uselessness are appealing rather than alienating. Funniest of all is the character of Pete (Brian Sgambati), Nick's sleazy elder brother/ boss, who injects a dose of real-world office humor into the increasingly surreal, fantastical experiences of the parents whose baby may or may not have mind-altering powers).
Director Pam MacKinnon and scenic designer Narelle Sissons have set the play firmly in the office world: bankers boxes, file cabinets and desks serve as backdrop to the action. Smudge herself is never seen. Instead the baby is embodied by a pram fitted with tubes, cords and flashing lights. While the pram itself is appropriately and disturbingly complex, the generic office design doesn't quite mesh with the introspective, quirky play.
MacKinnon is to be complimented, however, for finding and directing actors who embody their characters with charm and intelligence. Keller is quite winning as Nick, the ultimate nice guy who would be a great dad to a normal baby. Beck as Cassie transforms convincingly from a likable young woman to a disconnected and angry mother. And Sgambati seems to get funnier with each line Pete utters.
As noted, this is an ambitious play, one that ponders such big questions as how to communicate and what it means to be alive. In fact, there are moments when Smudge feels a bit overly ambitious— its thematic scope coming at the expense of narrative clarity (and sometimes contrasting awkwardly with Axler's quips and office humor). Towards the end of the play, the storyline begins to feel a little haphazard and unclear depriving it of the needed emotional wallop. That's not to downplay Axler's depiction of realistic, likable characters headed toward breakdown and making Smudge a play that sticks with you, both for its laughs and for its message.