SmudgeBy Rachel Axler; Directed by Pam McKinnon
Off-Broadway, Play; Runs through 2.7.10
Venue: Women's Project, 424 West 55th Street
Cassie Beck, Mr. Carrot and Greg Keller in Smudge.
(Before we get to the review: Please note the stuffed carrot in the photo above. His name, aptly enough, is Mr. Carrot, and he is simply divine. I wished very much that he would be on sale at the concessions stand, but alas! He was not).
BOTTOM LINE: A major cut above the average parenting narrative, but the last 15 minutes of a show is not a good place for failure...
What the press notes say about Smudge: "The world premiere of a dark comedy about the changing face of the American family and the limits of love and cheesecake, as a hopeful young couple gives birth to a smudge, by two-time Emmy Award winner Rachel Axler."
There is much to admire here. Superlative performances - the actors are sublime, simply delightful to watch. Brian Sgambati and Greg Keller are the quintessential yin and yang of masculinity, and they play their stylized edges to the hilt. Cassie Beck, as the mother, is the even balance between them, and her performance takes my breath away. Beautiful stagecraft all around - hats off to the designers (I kid you not, the stroller onstage is a work of stage design genius - it has a life of its own). Wonderful direction by Pam McKinnon's - it is smooth, subtle and well-played. I would've appreciated a second actor exit as some of the necessities of shifting scenes with only one door onstage jarred me a bit, but that's a minor complaint.
The story itself is not anything magically new or different. Tried and true themes of quality of life are not earth-shattering. But the writing! Axler's script is sharp, crisp, and as clear and simple as day, as well as hilarious and heartbreaking. How often are shows lifted by the words the characters speak, instead of hindered? It is a rare treat to see.
What ails Smudge, and in my view the only thing that ails Smudge, is actually the last 15 minutes of the show. I won't give too much away, but one of the reasons the show works is because the thematic, potentially ideological 'quality of life' questions take a backseat to the tantalizing mystery of the child and the parents. What exactly is going on? Is the child actually deformed or is the mother bordering on insanity? If it is deformed, what exactly is wrong with it? And then the last 15 minutes of the show happened, all the mystery is solved, and the ideological themes come roaring to the forefront. As is usual with modern theatrical storytelling, not-knowing is much more interesting than knowing.
Plus, Mr. Carrot didn't get a curtain call, and he thoroughly deserved one.
(Smudge plays at the Women's Project/Julie Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street, through February 7th. Performances are Monday and Tuesday at 7pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $52 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Tickets are $15 for Women's Project members. Get $26 with discount code SMTCX26 when you purchase from broadwayoffers.com.)