NEW YORK - The best way to describe Rachel Axler's new play, "Smudge," might be to call it a darkly comic tragedy.
The subject matter isn't for the fainthearted: A young couple has an extremely deformed baby, whom they joking called "the smudge" when they saw the first ultrasound photo of her.
"Smudge," now having its world premiere at off-Broadway's Women's project, is about the effect this infant daughter has on her parents - and their relationships.
Cassie Beck poignantly plays Colby, the new mother who is battling stunning postpartum disappointment. Greg Keller is Nick, the determinedly earnest father.
The baby, whose name, "Cassandra," was chosen before she was born, is described somewhat, but never seen by the audience. She lives in a softly beeping superpram that is laden with lights and colorful tubes containing various IV drips that sustain her.
A shellshocked Nick continues to go to work each day. When at home, he coos over Cassie's single, "extremely beautiful" blue-green eye, and waves a giant stuffed carrot back and forth over the pram for her "eye exercises." Out of his hearing, Colby mutters, "It's a disturbing trick of nature, to put that one beautiful eye into that smudge."
Overcome with bitterness, sarcasm and cheesecake binges, Colby initially ignores the baby. She cuts the sleeves and legs off all the pink and white onesies, saying, "It doesn't have limbs, it doesn't need sleeves," and secretly uses the fabric to make a stuffed toy she calls "Mister Limbs." When she finally approaches the pram, she waves Mister Limbs and seemingly taunts Cassie with it, saying, "He has everything you don't."
The outside world is represented by Nick's self-absorbed older brother, Pete, played with good-humored, oblivious vulgarity by Brian Sgambati. Part of the play's suspense comes from Nick refusing to tell Pete - or anybody else - about Cassie's condition.
Surprisingly, the play is filled with laughs, due to Axler's tart way with quips, director Pam MacKinnon's brisk, unsentimental touch and the ability of both Keller and Beck to make their characters real and complex. The audience wants Colby to connect with Cassie and reconnect with Nick, and Nick not to falter in his resolve to treat Cassie like any other baby.
Together, these parents need to discover whether they can accept the child they produced and learn to love her just the way she is. Ultimately, "Smudge" is also about the complicated nature of love, what it means to truly become a parent and the resilience of the human spirit.