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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
A Nervous Smile
By Elyse Sommer
A Nervous Smile, the second play in this season's Nikos Stage season, takes a chilling look at the emotional fallout on parents of such children, the way years of care giving can drain even those with enormous moral and coping resources and enough money to ease the burden and provide every life enriching device available. It's a story that raises enough issues for several dramas.
John Belluso, though himself wheelchair bound since childhood became an up and coming young playwright whose work gave us a unique glimpse into the world of the disabled. A Nervous Smile, which was his last play (he died of unexplained causes last February ), combines Belluso's own intimate acquaintance with disability and a widely publicized case of a wealthy couple who abandoned their cerebral palsied 10-year old son at a Delaware hospital.
Too bad, the playwright didn't live long enough for his talent to mature. With time and heavy rewriting to edit out all the implausibilities, A Nervous Smile might have been a worthy follow-up to Peter Nichols unforgettable A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. As it stands it misses every opportunity to pass what Alfred Hitchcock called the ice box test: you buy into a premise and the characters' actions while watching a story unfold and only recognize the plot holes when you get home and open the refrigerator to have a snack.
The premise is this. Eileen (Amy Brenneman) and Brian (Scott Cohen), are parents of teen aged Emily who has CP. Eileen is the heir to a $20million dollar business so that they can afford to give Emily the best that money can buy. The fact that Brian's career as a novelist has gone nowhere and that he is dependent on an allowance from Emily to supplement his part-time teaching income, does not bode well for their marriage under the best of circumstances. For Eileen relief from stress comes via pill popping; for Brian it's an affair with Nicole (Gloria Reuben), who became their friend during years as active members of a Cerebral Palsy family support group. Nicole is raising Dominic, an even more severely disabled son, as a single working mom. While she is a lawyer, she's not on a high paying partner track and so her problems and frustrations are even more intense. The differences in the severity of Emily and Dominic's CP (it turns out that Emily is able to take advantage of a technical aid to read and write) adds yet another issue to this issue-laden play.
Well worth exploring and timely as all this is, the dramatic means for putting everything on the table lacks credibility and characters who can arouse our sympathies sufficiently -- this last despite a cast featuring four well credentialed actors. Amy Brenneman (probably best known to most theater goers as the title character in the now gone but long popular Judging Amy TV series) gives an especially strong and nuanced performance as Eileen, but there just aren't enough hints to authenticate the heart beating beneath the maniacally brittle surface persona dominating the stage for the first two scenes.
To jumpstart the plot, all of which plays out in Eileen and Brian's Manhattan apartment, the three main characters arrive more than a little tipsy after having attended the funeral of one of the CP support group's children. That first scene fills us in on the dynamics of this three-way friendship and also reveals the plan hatched by Brian as an escape from "feeling swollen with exhaustion" as Emily's primary caretakers. While they have help, a Russian immigrant named Blanka (Deidre O'Connell), as Brian puts it "She screams only for us. And if we don't go to her, then we are horrible people." It seems, Eileen shares his willingness to do the unthinkable; namely, to abandon Emily. She has sold her business so that she can subsidize their escape from the lives they have found untenable to one filled with the things they desire. It seems Eileen has no objection to ending the marriage so that Brian and Nicole can be together -- which, of course, means that Nicole too must leave her son.
This rather wild scheme is a set-up for a final and not especially surprising twist -- and flags up the dramatic flaws that might have been corrected had the playwright been around to re-evaluate his script. Given the prominence of Eileen's family business, the sudden sale would make the planned disappearing act an instant non-starter. There's nothing said about Nicole's husband to make his willingness to take charge of their son a given. And while Gloria Reuben's self-contained acting style suited her when she was last seen as a dead ringer for Condoleeza Rice in the Public Theater's production of David Hare's Stuff Happens, it's hard to believe her going along with Brian's plan so quickly and easily.
Add the rather out of left field business about Eileen's planned surgery to remove her calcified breast implants and having the caretaker turn out to be the moral voice pleading for Emily and all disabled victims to have the beauty and talent begging to be recognized, and this promising premise becomes more and more of a Swiss cheese play.
Director Maria Mileaf does her utmost to keep the melodramatic elements from overwhelming the provocative themes. The production also suffers from stagecraft that is more adequate than impressive. Vincent Mountain's set is nice enough but it looks more like a corporate middle manager's apartment than a multi-millionaire's home. While the book filled wall is nicely lit between scenes by Nicole Pearce, a view of Central Park or the Hudson River would have been more apt.
The ordinariness of the set is a minor quibble when considered alongside a major casting misjudgment. Deidre O'Connell, whose luminous acting has often lifted ordinary plays into the realm of the extraordinary, is all wrong as Blanka -- a woman who's supposed to be in her 50s. The vibrant O'Connell would have been fine in either Brenneman's or Reuben's role but she simply doesn't fit this part.
The advance press information about this play describes the play as bringing a sense of humor to a devastating situation. A Nervous Smile is hardly light summer entertainment. Despite its flaws it does make us pause to think about the horrendous physical and psychological demands facing too many parents and leaves us saddened at the loss of this often poetic young playwright before he had a chance to realize his full potential.
Review of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Review of Gretty Good times by John Belluso
Review of Pyretown by John Belluso