Review of Smudge, New Haven Theater Company
Time was, “fear of becoming parents” would have been interpreted as either “fear of becoming like one’s own parents,” i.e., old and square, or “fear of becoming adults and responsible for children”—a desire to prolong one’s freedom from responsibility. Rachel Axler’s Smudge, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company, suggests a different take: “fear of what the child might be.” Mind you, it’s not a “fear of children” as demanding, unreasonable creatures, per se, but rather a fear of what might go wrong in childbirth itself. If Freud and psychoanalysis made us ultra-aware of the problems parenting can cause in children, modern medicine makes us ultra-aware of how our bodies can fail us in giving birth to them.
As the play opens, Colby (Katelyn Marie Marshall) and Nick (Christian Shaboo) are expecting, but they are a bit confused by their child’s ultrasound photo. They can’t seem to decide the kid’s sex, nor even if it’s a fetus, properly speaking. The photo looks “smudged.” When the child is born, they must come to grips with the fact that the baby, named Cassandra, isn’t formed like other children. The lines in the play that describe the infant leave much to our imaginations about what, in fact, Cassandra looks like. Her dad, initially, seems proud and waxes poetic about the color of her eyes, or, more properly, eye. It seems that only one is open. Mom, on the other hand, is distressed and maybe even a bit terrorized by the prospect of having to treat this “freak” as her own beloved offspring.
Fortunately for us, Axler’s script has a lightness that keeps us from brooding too much on what has gone wrong and how the young couple should cope with it. The structure of the play, as a series of black-outs, gives us glimpses rather than continuous scenes, and, while the timing of the show could go faster to keep us from over-thinking the situation, the play is paced very deliberately. We see Nick at work, where his older brother, Pete (Peter Chenot), is also his boss, and, while reluctant to provide photos of Cassandra for Pete and their impatient-for-news mother, Nick doesn’t seem unduly upset. An asset here is Chenot’s Pete, a guy who aims to amuse, mostly, and, with his odd asides and mannerisms reminiscent of Bill Murray goofing around, he does lighten things up considerably.
Back at home, though, Colby soliloquizes distractedly to a crib festooned with tubes. Demoralized that the child isn’t what she expected, she’s far from coping with what the child’s needs might be. Nick nags her to interact with Cassandra—as in waving a large plush carrot over the crib as he does—but Colby would rather sulk on the couch and eat vast quantities of cheesecake. Eventually, the play begins to pull its plot strains together—such as Nick’s upcoming presentation to a UN conference on behalf of the Census Bureau, and the fact that Colby begins to interact with a Cassandra who makes her tubes glow attractively and emits sci-fi sounds.
As Colby, Marshall has in many ways the toughest role. Her initial lack of sympathy with the child may make her seem a bit unsympathetic, but Marshall maintains a breezy irony that keeps us chuckling. There’s a certain no-nonsense tone to her musings that suits motherhood, and her remarks to the child let us glimpse what seems to be Axler’s point: that a mother’s relation to her child—whether the child is unique or “normal”—is always unique. Nick, like Pete (a father of three boys), simply wants to play doting father, as if that’s the only role he is capable of imagining.
The lights and sounds that create Colby’s sense of Cassandra give us a glimpse of her “alienness” for Colby, while also making us wonder what Cassandra is really like. Suitably, Nicol-Blifford and NHTC’s rendering of Rachel Axler’s enigmatic and entertaining play keeps us guessing about its intentions.
The main takeaways, for me, come from seeing cracks in Nick’s happy-at-all-costs façade, which Shaboo makes us feel sharply at Nick’s presentation, and from Colby’s shift away from disengagement, which happens after sharing cheesecake, among other things, with Pete. Parenting is trial and error, mostly, and, whether or not they have made errors, Nick and Colby have to get over feeling “on trial” for Cassandra, and must try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
After a two night run last week, NHTC’s Smudge plays Wednesday through Saturday this week.
By Rachel Axler
Directed by Deena Nicol-Blifford
Cast: Katelyn Marie Marshall; Christian Shaboo; Peter Chenot
Special Effects: Trevor Williams; Sound Design & Original Music: Megan Keith Chenot; Light & Sound Board Ops: Steve Scarpa & J. Kevin Smith
The New Haven Theater Company Stage
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 5-6; 11-14, 2015