nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 10, 2010
Rachel Axler's new play Smudge is about a young married couple, Colby and Nick, whose first child is...a smudge. I'd like to be able to explain just exactly what that means, but I'm afraid that the production, directed by Pam MacKinnon for Women's Project, is pretty confusing on this point. And mainly for that reason, I left the play feeling very unsatisfied.
The dictionary on my trusty iMac says a smudge is a "blurred or smeared mark on the surface of something." This clearly is not what Colby and Nick's child is; but Colby describes her daughter Cassandra as looking like a smudge and unfortunately we're never given much guidance to help us understand what she means by that. We learn that the baby has one beautiful blue-green eye that apparently never closes and another eye that never opens. And she has an appendage that Colby calls a tail at one point and a possible penis at another. The "smudge" has no limbs and can only live by being hooked up to a bunch of feeding tubes.
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.
The set, for example, which is designed by Narelle Sissons, is bounded on three sides by stacks of bankers boxes and file cabinets, most of which have strings of 0s and 1s written on them as labels. They frame two undifferentiated overlapping areas of the stage that represent Nick's office and Nick and Colby's house, but I never understood what the fluid nature of the world of the play might signify. Though the script seems to call for a more-or-less realistic environment, MacKinnon's concept of the space is surreal and playful: cheesecakes are pulled not from refrigerators but from file drawers, and the mass of tubes and wires that presumably keep Cassandra alive lead not to IV drips or machinery but to nothing at all.
Axler's ideas here are intriguing and the play has an interesting haunting quality that lingers. But her craftsmanship feels inconsistent. She has Colby talk once (but only once) directly to the audience, which almost always strikes me as a careless way to handle exposition. And the play's third character, Nick's brother Pete, spends most of the play being the kind of spoiled, self-indulgent guy-asshole that seems so de rigueur on stage these days (he has a speech where he talks at length about the color of his bowel movements, for example). Brian Sgambati works hard to make Pete into a character we can ultimately care about, but Axler stacks the deck against him for no real reason that I could find.
Cassie Beck and Greg Keller play Colby and Nick, but I found them hard to root for. Again, I think directorial decisions seemed to be steering the play away from itself. The final scene in this production appears to present a conclusion nearly opposite to what I read in Axler's script. So maybe the tension between MacKinnon's take on Smudge and Axler's is what made it tough for me to suss out a clear message from a production that has clearly been crafted with care.