I can't help but wonder what the pregnant woman one seat over me thought of Smudge, Rachel Axler's strange, dark comedy that I saw at Women's Project a few weeks ago. Smudge is very much a pregnant woman's worst manic fears brought to life, and whether the pregnant audience member was enthralled or repulsed, I'm fairly sure this play gave her a stronger feeling than it did me.
The world in Smudge is at once pedestrianly ours and yet also lyrically, absurdly something else. Cassie Beck and Greg Keller give fantastic performances as Colby and Nicholas, the new parents of a baby so grotesquely deformed - save one beautiful, Caribbean-blue eye - that she's more a "smudge" than a tiny person. This is a dark, dark script, and they deftly bring out its grim humor. Greg Keller does brilliant, pathetic things with a stuffed carrot. Cassie Beck, a leading interpreter of Adam Bock's hypernaturalism (seriously, I think she moved here from California for a production of his), knows how to find the balance of wry comedy and pathos beneath and in between the lines. Playing opposite a glowing, blinking mass of tubes pouring out of the bassinet that houses the smudge, she compellingly runs through a manic cycle of disgust, despair, and joy in the face of this disaster that she's supposed to love.
But this play still seems to lack a grounding in, if not the real world, then a world that operates on any rules that make this scenario plausible. The newborn's deformities - a spiked tail, no arms, the singular arresting eye - call to mind a fairy tale monster, but no one seems to notice that this very unreal baby has been born into what seems to be our own real world. I don't know if I'm more distracted by the baby's poetic unrealism or the fact that a real baby so disfigured wouldn't be so easily sent home with her hapless parents.
I suppose Nicholas' complete denial of the baby's problems could be a coping mechanism, for example, but when there's zero acknowledgment between characters of the reality that the audience is seeing, there's no solid ground to start from even before things start to slip. When the monster-baby communicates with its mother via a feeding tube light show, we're left not only wondering whether it's real or in Colby's head, but whether the play knows this, either. I don't want a play to give me all the answers, but to at least give me a sense that they exist.
29 January 2010