Company Loves Misery
Many of us are misery junkies, pure and simple. We adore the early records of Elvis Costello and think Cormac McCarthy is entirely too cheerful. We distrust happy endings on principle, for we know most happy endings are wholly inappropriate. Life, after all, contains only one real ending, and it is seldom happy. Until it comes, we crave theater and music and film that cracks open the skull and cooks the ever-living shit out of whatever's in there. We want to walk out of the theater stuffed with frittata medulla, blinking and bleeding from the eyes.
If you're one of us, John Belluso's A Nervous Smile is for you. It's about a husband and wife who decide to abandon their severely disabled daughter because caring for her is a pain in the ass. It is a quick and dirty rape of a play, and it leaves you feeling soiled and sorry you ever joined the species. That it's coming from New Theatre is a little ironic; the theater is not the preferred venue of misery junkies, and executive artistic director Ricky J. Martinez is not what you'd call gritty.
A Nervous Smile takes place almost totally in the nu-gothic living room of married couple Brian and Eileen (Clint Hooper and Barbara Sloan). The place combines the mean dramatic lighting of Dark Shadows with the urban lux of Bonfire of the Vanities, and it registers at first glance as a great place for bad karma. As the play opens, Brian and Eileen have just returned from a funeral with a friend, Nichole (the superhot Annemaria Rajala), and something weird is afoot. These people are allegedly close to one another, but Nichole is awkward, Brian is surly, and Eileen is full of passive aggression.
Barbara Sloan is like a shark with legs. Her eyes glitter and her teeth glint and she grins like a less family-friendly version of Cruella DeVille. She looks ready to bite, and only the basic gutterpunk mentality of her husband gives the scene any balance. He's not as flashy about it, but he could do some chewing of his own.
These people are beaten down, crazed by their hatred for each other and especially of living under the long shadow of Emily, their disabled daughter. It is not readily apparent they mean to do something about this, and that's as it should be — committing felony abandonment and then fleeing the country is no easy trick, and explaining it to your friends is even trickier. Discovering how Brian and Eileen mean to handle it is a big part of what makes A Nervous Smile so jolting. When the subject is broached, it is one of the more awkward conversations New Theatre has staged this season.
Explaining her philosophical rationale, Eileen is full of bravado and conviction that she might or might not truly possess. She breathlessly explains we must move "toward the things we desire and away from the things we pity," a line that echoes across a lot of the world's lonelier graveyards. Buried within it is a comment on everything from free market capitalism to the green solipsistic heart of the Zeitgeist, with which playwright John Belluso was likely quite familiar. Belluso, who died two years ago, was confined to a wheelchair from the age of 13 owing to Engleman-Camurdrie syndrome. Given this, it's remarkable that Belluso had it left in him to give these contemptible characters hearts, which he did. Thankfully the characters in A Nervous Smile contain multitudes of them. If they didn't, A Nervous Smile would be a solid 90 minutes of misanthropy so pure even misanthropes would feel bad.
In addition to those multitudes, the characters also contain a lot of cheese, which is a problem. At times, Belluso seems to have been so full of Sturm und Drang that he couldn't help but descend into cheapjack poetics, which are almost entirely beside the point. When Eileen rhapsodizes about her love of prescription painkillers, it comes off like a guided meditation in a new-age bookstore; there are many such inorganic moments in A Nervous Smile, as well as moments in which Belluso overextends his thesis.
By the end, the piece becomes a self-conscious meditation on the squandering of America's "great democratic potential" and the race between technology and morality. I suggest that any play should feel free to comment on such matters, but that a play about abandoning a disabled daughter should do so indirectly. Actually explaining yourself in such a way unnecessarily manhandles the art, especially when the exegesis comes courtesy of a stock character like Blanka (Harriet Oser), Emily's nurse. Blanka is a wise old immigrant whose dad died in a concentration camp, and who dispenses Old World wisdom and Dostoevsky whenever her costars seem in need of moral guidance. She is a lazy bit of writing, redeemed by an anything-but-lazy performance from Oser, who's always fun to watch.
Yes, A Nervous Smile is fun, which is a tad strange. You'd think a play that leaves disabled kids to the mercy of foster parents and courts would eschew fun, but Belluso apparently felt otherwise. He gave us a play full of the most wretched characters ever created and then found it in himself to forgive them all. There might be a message there. Misery junkie though I am, I certainly hope there is.
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