“Smudge” humorously explores every expecting parent’s nightmare: there will be something “wrong” with their child or, worse, they’ll actually give birth to a monster.
Written by Rachel Axler, the Emmy award-winning writer who pens “The Daily Show” and “Parks and Recreation,” and directed by Erin Kraft, the three-person comedy was first performed at the Lulia Miles Theatre in New York two years ago and was a smashing success.
Colby (Carol Thompson) and Nick (Ash Hyman) are expecting a child, and as the lights illuminate the stage, the happy couple is trying to read the sonogram, but have trouble understanding what they are looking at. Although they first dismiss the odd sonogram, Colby does in fact give birth to a “smudge.” Colby and Nick’s “baby” is described as a purplish-grey hot dog with a large head, one creepy eye of “Caribbean sea color,” and a spike or tail—the parents and doctors aren’t really sure which.
New mother Colby is unsure what to call the thing she gave birth to—her mess of names includes “creature,” “it,” “freak,” “smudge,” “hot dog,” and even “a bunch of entrails in a casing.” Her husband, on the other hand, names their child Cassandra.
Nick, the father, is an adoring parent who loves his child and urges his wife to accept Cassandra and bond with her. After work he comes home to do eye exercises with the “baby” and tells her stories while playing with Cassandra’s stuffed carrot. Much to his frustration, his wife refuses to even look into the crib.
There are moments of comedy when Colby becomes hysterical while trying to interact with her child and her hysteria turns out to be the only thing the child responds to. Every time Colby is alone with the “baby” and has an angry outburst the lights flicker and beeping noises fill the room. The cradle also glows and makes weird noises. No other character inspires this sort of reaction from Cassandra, so it is unclear whether or not the flashing lights and beeping sounds only exist in Colby’s mind.
And to be clear, the play never explains what the heck is going on when the glowing and beeping happens. In fact, the play never decides what the heck the baby is at all. So if you’re looking for a play that has an ending all tied up in a bow, this is not the production for you.
As the play progresses, more and more questions are raised—what does it mean to “be?” Is the baby alive? Is it even a baby? However, not a single question is answered. The situation of this baby is also curious because the doctors simply let the parents take this creature home in a carriage with all kinds of tubes coming out of it. A medical opinion as to what the heck is in the crib is never offered. Throughout the entire play, the “smudge” is represented solely by this unexplained crib that is hooked up to a bunch of feeding tubes and other unidentified wiring. You never see what exactly this monstrous baby looks like.
With all plot holes and questions aside, the play is highly entertaining. Axler’s writing is well-executed and intentionally directed. Even though the premise is almost distractingly odd, Axler’s comedic style was present throughout the play, but particularly palpable in Nick’s brother Pete (played by Noah Benezra) whose lines were reminiscent of the dialogue on “Parks and Recreation.”
Although Washington Ensemble Theater has a very small space to work with, I found the set design and technical elements to be quite genius. Although long periods of darkness occur intermittently as the stagehands set up the next scene, the stage was well used.
The characters were cleverly designed to have moments of comical hysteria that shift into periods of seriousness and deep worry. It is impressive that three characters are all that are needed to tell the story of an unprecedented situation.
If you are not interested in plays that are off-the-wall, you should save the money. But, if you’re looking for some well-scripted and hyper-original entertainment, Washington Ensemble Theater’s production of “Smudge” will not disappoint.
Veronica may be reached at [email protected]