Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., 325-5105, washingtonensemble.org. $15–$25. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Mon. Ends April 22.
Remember the shock waves when Oprah blew the lid off the parenting myth, exposing the untold story of filth, tedium, pain, and misery associated with childbirth? To hear it from that angle, you had to wonder whether any woman in her right mind would ever have a child again—and those were ordinary births she was talking about! TV writer Rachel Axler (The Daily Show, Parks and Recreation) skips to an outlier case, attempting to put a darkly seriocomic spin on an abnormal birth—a couple delivered of a baby with one eye, no limbs, and questionable genitalia—to strangely little effect. The story unfolds (to the degree that there’s a semblance of progression) around the parents’ and relatives’ reactions to the child. Director Erin Kraft and cast make a sportsmanly effort on behalf of the flimsy, understructured 2010 text, but the tonally erratic parade of one- or two-beat scenes seldom elicits more feeling than a random episode of The Office.
We first meet Smudge, aka “Cassandra,” “Cassie,” or “the Greek,” in an in-utero photo, her parents squinting at it, perplexed by their kid’s amorphousness. This is one of the better moments—relatable by any parent-to-be overwhelmed by the unknowns to come. When the baby arrives, Colby (Carol Thompson) rejects it emotionally, while Nick (Ash Hyman) tries to connect with it, a plausible dynamic. But as he returns to work (at the U.S. Census bureau, cleverly nested into the picture window of Devin Petersen’s living-room set), leaving Colby alone with the baby, weird poltergeist-like lights and sounds begin to suggest that the child (never seen outside its I.V.-bag-decorated bassinet) is demonic or the mom is crazy. As Colby, the likable Thompson binges, mocks the child, and makes flailing attempts to regain a sex life in her shapeless role.
Meanwhile, Census colleague Pete (Noah Benezra) doubles as the standard cliché of obnoxious brother (to Nick), though he delivers his tyrannical, sitcommy rants so quickly and monotonously that it’s hard to follow them. Most irritatingly, every time one of Axler’s scenes stumbles upon a moment that could become interesting or consequential, it cuts to black, as though going to a commercial. She won’t deal with the real work of storytelling beyond snappy setups. The edgy subject matter is not what’s offensive about Smudge, but rather its refusal to let anything authentically human take root in it.