Greg Keller and Cassie Beck in Smudge
(© Carol Rosegg)
Greg Keller and Cassie Beck in Smudge
(© Carol Rosegg)
What better way is there to mark the age of Jon, Kate, and Octomom than with a play that explores the creepy secrets of childrearing? Look no further than Emmy Award-winner Rachel Axler's dark, serious, and very intelligent comedy, Smudge, now getting its world premiere at The Women's Project.

The work focuses on Colby (Cassie Beck, offering razor-sharp timing) and census-worker Nicholas (the fine Greg Keller), a young couple whose morbid but typically human fears about their baby being born unhealthy are realized beyond their wildest nightmares. In the wake of this horror, Mom turns to hostility and cheesecake, while Dad turns to philosophy and toy carrots. At what point, they ask themselves, does someone start or stop being human? Is there ever a point at which someone stops deserving love?

Axler does not always offer easy or humorous answers to those questions. She does, however, provide some funny nuances to the debate, much of it delivered by Brian Sgambati, who is hilarious as Nicholas' boss and older brother Pete, an "overgrown frat boy," whose behavior itself raises all sorts of questions about which humans deserve love and which ones deserve scorn.

The problem, however, with writing a play that centers around a smudge (even one with the elaborate name of Cassandra) is to engage not only the minds of the viewers but their hearts as well, as the couple's marriage begins to crumble under the weight of this tragedy. Colby is not the only mother who has flirted with the idea of filicide -- nor are these the only parents who have suddenly felt crowded out of their families by selfish, alien newcomers. Here, however, the play falls a bit short. Moreover, once our shock wears off of seeing the luminous, humming tubes and blinking lights that keep Cassandra ostensibly alive, we become numb to them. (That may be the playwright's intention, but it's still problematic.)

Director Pam MacKinnon's frequent use of distancing effects, such as when Beck marks the end of Colby's pregnancy by yanking the padding out of her shirt and handing it abruptly to her fellow actor, adds to the problem. Given Axler's already outrageous premise, occasional monologues, and snappy one-liners, such Brechtian moments seem unnecessary.

Fortunately, the production's design team does its job. Narelle Sissons' set consists largely of file boxes marked with binary code and a giant set of windows hovering precariously over the stage, while Asa Wember's sound design combines with Russell H. Champa's lighting to create an otherworldly dialogue between this play's unusual mother and child.