Sunday, September 23, 2012


That drama has the ability to make us feel uncomfortable is one of its great powers. Several recent plays have shined a light on the effect of a tragedy on parents of a young child; Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay Abaire comes to mind wherein a husband and wife deal very differently with the death of their young son.

Add to that list the dark comedy Smudge by Rachel Axler opening the 2012-2013 season at Alliance Repertory's new outpost in Berkeley Heights. Stunningly and lovingly directed by Michael A. Driscoll, this 80-minute play targets the response of two young first-time parents when their child is born severely malformed.

267393_10151172183949432_1362813383_n[1]The music Driscoll has chosen to open the show, a vocal arrangement of Shakespeare's "Oh, what a piece of work is man" speech from Act II of Hamlet, sets the scene for what follows. Trouble looms on the horizon when an ultrasound reveals an indeterminate shape, a "smudge" as Colby Stillman, the mother, calls it (left). She's been suffering from terrible nightmares which she thinks presages disaster. Unfortunately, she's right, for the child, who Nick, the dad, names Cassandra, has no limbs and one eye. Of course, we never actually see the baby, but Colby's reaction is enough to tell us that catastrophe has struck.

251021_10151172198609432_1078712060_n[1]Before you think, what a bummer, rest assured that Axler has used black comedy to great effect to lighten the dark theme. There's the relationship between Nicholas and his brother Peter, who is forced to run interference between Nick and their mother because he has failed to call her or share photos of the new baby. Not that Peter is too pleased at being left out of the loop, either. And Cassandra's response to Colby—communicated via blinking lights and an increasingly beeping monitor—are both funny and touching. (Right: Lilli Marques)

487498_10151172200119432_1408002092_n[1]The three actors Driscoll has cast are long-time Alliance Rep Company members, and they perform with their usual professional aplomb. As Colby, Lilli Marques has a difficult, rather unsympathetic, role, for she rejects the baby, taunts it and even calls it "entrails encased in a hot dog." Nevertheless, she ably communicates the young woman's pain at having produced a less-than-perfect child. Gus Ibranyi's Nicholas at first appears to fare much better. He bonds with the child, tries to get it to exercise its eye by moving a stuffed carrot toy in front of it and actually looking at the baby (left). 10458_10151172194119432_170123953_n[1]When he finally calls Cassandra "the little monster," we sense his hopelessness. It falls to Brad Howell as Peter to deliver most of the very funny, profane and often outrageous lines. Just watching him read messages from their mother that he's scribbled on sticky notes (and sticking them to different parts of his body) is a real howl (right). Yet when he shows up uninvited to visit his new niece, his reaction at seeing her tells us all we need to know. Best of all, the fraternal chemistry between Howell and Ibranyi is totally believable.

As Alliance Rep Artistic Director, Michael Driscoll often picks unusual plays not often seen, many of which have a dark side. However, they do offer a glimmer of light through all the darkness. So too does Smudge. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that a detente between the two parents is reached in a very sweet ending.

Alliance Rep has recently moved from its home at the Loft above the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway to the Wharton Music Center in Berkeley Heights. The new performing space is quite attractive (and resembles that of the Loft), but its location is a bit off the beaten path, and there is no lit sign outside the building advertising Smudge. If you are a fan of theater that does not present the same old, same old, it is worth a trip to 60 Locust Avenue (off Snyder Avenue, which is off Springfield Avenue) in Berkeley Heights. I promise you that it is worth the trip.

Smudge will be performed at Alliance Repertory at the Wharton Music Center, 106 Locust Avenue (in an industrial park of office buildings, not residential) in Berkeley Heights through September 29, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM. For information or tickets call 908.472.1502 or visit the website:

Photos by Howard Fischer.