Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Photo/Carol Rosegg

If there's one thing Rachel Axler knows, as a writer for TV's Parks & Recreation, it's the idea of "forced normalcy," in which outrageous things happen, yet are taken in stride for laughs. Hence the first scene of Smudge, in which Colby (Cassie Beck) and Nick (Greg Keller), try to make out their baby in a sonogram, only to settle for this observation of their little blur: "Awww... it's our first time not seeing our baby together." But 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. (Pete is also used, blandly, for a cheap moment of adulterous drama.)

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. For instance, Nick's job turns out to be at the Census Bureau--which explains Narelle Sisson's set: plain, quantifiable boxes, labeled with statistical values (from 0 to 1) but filled with physical objects that show how impossible odds sometimes become practical. This leads to some clever scenes as Nick begins to lose it, struggling to find a daughter in that .000000000001 percent chance, sending out "supplemental censuses" in which he basically asks his pool of data to give him the right to kill his daughter. Colby's attempts to cope are also deftly done, with the baby "responding" with a supernatural glow and series of electrical shocks that may or may not be all in her hopeful unconscious.

But then comes Axler, getting in the way of her own play. First off, she breaks the realism for a needless, expository monologue-fest in the second scene, a tactic she never returns to. She then throws Pete into scene after scene, mainly because he's a shallow, easy-to-write character, good for a quick laugh with his off-topic quips about purple poop or the nature of rhetorical questions (like "hasta la pasta"). Worse, she never finds a consistent voice for her main characters--though Keller and Beck are steady actors, they stumble over show-off lines like "You hiding your little burlesque?" or too-direct bits like "Living is binary."

As a result--and Pam MacKinnon's direction is perhaps too passive, given her history with controlling playwrights--the ending is entirely unearned. The two characters imagine--as on a recent episode of Desperate Housewives--what life would be like with a regular baby. In the script, this is where the two finally resign themselves to their child; as performed, it looks more as if they're escaping into the darkness of the slow fade, as determined in the ending as in the beginning to smudge things--to show without really showing.

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