A Nervous Smile
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 24, 2009
In A Nervous Smile, Brian and Eileen are a horrid post-yuppie couple that reside in trendy comfort on the Upper West Side, tended to by an immigrant housekeeper (who is equal-parts Fool in Lear's court and Natasha from Bullwinkle). Along with Nic, Eileen's long-time friend, they return—tittering—from a memorial service (a plot point that, after riddling, reveals them a loathsome lot) home to an evening of bombshells and revelations designed by playwright John Belluso to provoke an uneasy dramatic conflict: Nic and Brian are having a clandestine affair, Eileen not only knows but has granted blessings for them to abscond with half of Eileen's sizeable trust fund, and tickets are purchased and ready for pre-dawn flights out of the country. The hitch: Nic has a young child from a previous marriage, suffering from severe cerebral palsy; Brian and Eileen have a similarly afflicted daughter. For the plan to work, all three parents must abandon their children.
Theatre Breaking Through Barriers' production of A Nervous Smile is a handsome display, full of fine production value and nuanced detail. Ike Schambelan's direction keeps his cast of four active and physically engaged, using well an elegant set by Bert Scott. The sound design by Alden Fulcomer is evocative, and features a haunting poem read by the never-seen daughter of Brian and Eileen, Emily (Emily Young). Marilee Talkington offers an emotionally grounded, generous performance as Nic, and Melanie Boland is endearing and amusing as Blanka, the aforementioned put-upon housekeeper.
Unfortunately, A Nervous Smile doesn't quite reach the riveting peaks Belluso and Schambelan aim for. Hindered by an apparent lack of chemistry between Talkington and Nicholas Viselli (as the plaintive, milquetoast Brian), there seems little reason for Nic to consider discarding her child and her responsibilities for a life lived on the lam in a country where she doesn't know the tongue; yet that is exactly the choice made by the character not 20 minutes into A Nervous Smile, and without much debate or consideration. As well, Pamela Sabaugh offers a strident, demonstrative performance as Eileen that strains credulity and makes an audience's empathy quite difficult. Played here as straight drama, with little ear for comedy and none for satire, the theme of exhaustive sacrifice in conflict with self-want conjures a distancing of audience from character.
The program for A Nervous Smile contains a message from Schambelan as artistic director of Theatre Breaking Through Barriers, advocating the casting of actors with disabilities. Though not identified as a mission statement, this—coupled with A Nervous Smile's condemnation of its own callous characters—suggests that the aim of this production is honorable. It is regrettable that the creative forces behind it, though obviously passionate for the subject matter, have delivered a play with so little dramatic conflict and even less of a reason to care about those conflicted.