Nicholas Viselli and Marilee Talkington in A Nervous Smile
(© Carol Rosegg)
Nicholas Viselli and Marilee Talkington in A Nervous Smile
(© Carol Rosegg)
A married couple plots to abandon their disabled child in John Belluso's provocative play, A Nervous Smile, now receiving its New York premiere at the Kirk Theatre in an uneven production from Theater Breaking Through Barriers. While Belluso's dark comedy can be very funny, some of the work's humor is blunted in this imperfect, loosely paced staging by director Ike Schambelan.

The late playwright, who was himself disabled, crafted a compelling tale of moral complexity. Brian (Nicholas Viselli) and Eileen (Pamela Sabaugh) are weary of caring for their (unseen) teenage daughter Emily, who suffers from cerebral palsy. They hatch a plan to free themselves of the responsibility of taking care of her, with their scheme also involving Nic (Marilee Talkington), a single mother whose son also has cerebral palsy, and Blanka (Melanie Boland), Emily's elderly caregiver.

Neither Viselli nor Sabaugh are able to bring much depth to their roles, although the latter shows a few more shades to her work in her final scene. Unfortunately, Sabaugh is never able to convincingly convey the effects that too much alcohol and Vicodin has on Eileen, instead indicating her woozy state in too obvious a manner. Talkington does a much better job at capturing the nuances of her character; her non-verbal reactions speak volumes, and she appears emotionally connected to the material at all times. In particular, a stirring confessional speech that Nic makes about losing her temper at her son is uncomfortable to sit through precisely because the actress brings out both the anger and self-loathing that drives the monologue. Boland, who possesses a vibrant stage presence, provides some of the play's funnier moments as she emphasizes Blanka's eccentricities while still managing to show her character's genuine concern for Emily. However, all of the actors tend to step over some of their laugh lines, and don't hold other moments when a brief pause could be effective.

As he did in many of his plays, Belluso calls attention to the intersection between disability and class, demonstrating the advantages that Emily has over Nic's son partially because of Eileen's wealth. While the playwright makes it clear he doesn't condone the plan hatched to dispose of Emily, he also allows empathy for the frustration these parents feel in giving their lives over to the care of a child who will always need more than they can give. And despite the production's shortcomings, the play's ending is poignant and powerful.