The baby is a maybe.

  • HELL ON WHEELS Keller and Beck cope with a problem child.

HELL ON WHEELS Keller and Beck cope with a problem child.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Babies are supposed to be cute—maybe not Baby Gap-catalog, Gerber-ad adorable, but little and wide-eyed and helpless and dear. The mysterious newborn in Rachel Axler’s smart, piquant Smudge is not lovable-looking. She is nearly indescribably deformed: a purple-grey mass of flesh and hair, with a single, disconcertingly beautiful Caribbean Sea--colored eye. Her horrified mother, Colby (Beck), describes the child as looking “Sort of like a jellyfish. Sort of like something that’s been erased.” Unable to bond, Colby starts to come unglued.

The remarkable Beck, who has quickly become one of the city’s essential actors, gives Colby an original comic edge and a sympathetic stubbornness, with strong support from Greg Keller as Colby’s earnest, philosophically adrift husband and Brian Sgambati as his frat-boyish older brother. In some sense, Axler’s dark comedy—alertly directed by Pam MacKinnon for the momentum building Women’s Project—is a horror story: a parent’s nightmare rendered with sometimes lyrical surrealism. (The unseen baby, in a carriage tricked out with glowing rainbow-colored tubes, begins to emit bursts of bright and music when provoked.) But it is a parental love story too, which is not the same as a parental fantasy. A former writer for The Daily Show, Axler knows when to write a good joke, and when something stops being funny. A meditation on ambiguity and ambivalence, Smudge also illustrates ambition: a parent’s, thwarted, and a playwright’s, achieved.—Adam Feldman

See more Theater reviews

Women’s Project. By Rachel Axler. Dir. Pam MacKinnon. With Cassie Beck, Greg Keller, Brian Sgambati. 1hr 25mins. No intermission.