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Reviewed by:
  • Smudge
  • Dorothy Chansky
Smudge. By Rachel Axler. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Women's Project at the Julia Miles Theater, New York City. 5 January 2010.

Rachel Axler claims in publicity materials that Smudge, which she describes as a "hybrid with comic dialogue and a darker, or more serious, theme," was inspired by "the most horrible thought" she ever had and "the worst snap judgment" she ever made. These were that the severely disabled, facially expressionless, child-sized woman Axler glimpsed waiting at a stoplight in a wheelchair would never be loved by anyone.

Smudge suggests that this worst thought may have been modified for publicity purposes. The play deals not with the adult life of an active mind in a limbless, slack-muscled body, but with the parents of such a person as they come to terms with the corporeal reality of their newborn daughter. Do they fantasize about murdering her? Yes (and surely this must have been the "most horrible thought")—at least her angry mother does. Dad retreats into philosophy and fantasy, balancing obsessive reading with desperately creative playtime.

Axler's brief but rich text weaves many topics into the fabric of the sometimes realist, sometimes outlandish whole. On the most obvious level, these include postpartum depression and the obnoxiously coercive nature of hegemonic expectations surrounding the early days of parenthood (buying the "right" toys, sending out lots of photos, accumulating adorable "onesies"). Nick, the father, who names the baby Cassandra (the choice if she is beautiful, in lieu of Mary if she is plain), introduces the topic of euthanasia; Nick works with census data and concocts a quickly squelched survey to assess the public's tolerance for killing. Cockroaches, dragonflies, and maybe even dragons are okay, of course, but what about pigs? What about pigs if the respondents

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Greg Keller (Nick) and Cassie Beck (Colby) in Smudge. (Photo: Bruce Cohen.)

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Greg Keller (Nick) and Brian Sgambati (Pete) in Smudge. (Photo: Bruce Cohen.)

are neither kosher nor vegetarian? Overeating also shows up, as the resistant mother, Colby (played perkily by Cassie Beck), continues to indulge in an entire cheesecake long after her hormone-induced pregnancy cravings have stopped. And questions about the relationship between love and the imagination figure in nearly every scene. When Colby reports that the delivery-room nurse handed the baby to Nick (the sensitive but intense Greg Keller), thereby guaranteeing that Cassie would bond with her dad and not her mother, the seeds of resentment begin. But when Colby finally, grudgingly starts to tell stories to her daughter, she generates responses that inspire dancing on her part, while making Nick shut down and tune out.

My last metaphors are not chosen lightly. Perhaps the most interesting set of questions in Axler's script revolves around binaries. The sex of the fetus is illegible on the ultrasound the couple peruses in the opening scene; instead, they see a gray smudge—indeed, whether or not the baby is even alive is questioned. The audience never sees a figure resembling an infant. The parents bring home an elaborate electronic carriage tricked out with glowing tubes that facilitate feeding, breathing, and elimination. As Nick goes more deeply into his census project, as well as his inquiry about the meaning of life (no other phrase serves quite as well), he surprises us with the idea that it is not life, but statistics that traffics in the gray. "We chart probability on a range from zero to one," he notes, "using every decimal in-between. Probability is grayscale. Living is binary. Zero or one. Black or white. You've got two choices—alive or dead. It's in direct opposition to statistics."

The slide he uses to illustrate his point features what the script calls "a vacuous blur of grey," explicitly mimicking the ultrasound image from the opening scene, although the presentation slide may be something Nick imagines. His wise-guy brother (played with perhaps a touch too much of the sitcom by Brian Sgambati) takes over, presumably saving both Nick's job and the company's reputation. Nick's slide...


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pp. 664-666
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