Think of parenthood, marriage and just being a grown-up as bowling pins — the bowling pins of life. The characters in “Benched,” “Bleed” and “Smudge” juggle those pins like crazy. Funny, sad, flawed, but always intriguing, the plays make up a rotating repertory offered by Pinky Swear Productions under the rubric “Three Plays About the Nuclear/Unclear Family.”
There’s nothing unclear about the bright and funny one-liners in Allyson Currin’s one-act “Benched.” True, the piece has a sitcomish style, but that also means it’s entertaining and a good way to ease into the other plays, which are darker. The three gal pals in “Benched” commune on a playground bench for conversation while their kids play. Joan (Rebecca Ellis), the workaholic, sips from her bottle something clear that isn’t water. The divorced Meghan (Toni Rae Salmi) seems totally together but isn’t. And the newest mom, Timby (Karina Hilleard), positively buzzes with anxiety over her parenting skills and decorating choices. In a series of scenes that arc across months, “Benched” grows less giggly as life pulls the three friends in different directions and reaches a poignant conclusion. Under Matt Ripa’s staging, the three actors ace the Washington-based Currin’s comic dialogue while lending emotional weight to characters that might come off as shallow.
Renee Calarco’s “Bleed,” also staged by Ripa, starts as a raucous marital comedy but evolves effectively into something else. Marla (Karen Lange), wearing an awful matron of honor dress, takes drunken refuge in a playground to escape her sister’s wedding reception. Dez (Francisco Reinoso), Marla’s husband, who’s a bit more sober than she, comes looking for her. They bicker and flirt and snark about how much they hate their rich new brother-in-law. But when Dez, who’s been out of a job, tells Marla he’ll soon go to work for the guy, things turn argumentative. Suddenly, surprising themselves, the couple break a long silence about a tragedy in their past that has nothing to do with money or jobs. Calarco, also a Washington writer, hurtles Marla and Dez into a shattering explosion of pent-up grief and reconciliation. Not bad for a half-hour play. The actors and Ripa’s perceptive direction serve Calarco’s script well.
Performed in alternating rep with the one-acts, the full-length “Smudge” by Rachel Axler takes a far different path. Axler works as a writer and co-producer for high-end television comedies such as “Parks and Recreation,” “The New Girl” and “The Daily Show.” “Smudge” may have more than its share of glib zingers in the dialogue, but the play as a whole is a surreal fever dream built upon an expectant mother’s dread. Colby (Melissa Hmelnicky) and Nicholas (Brandon Cater), stare at a blurry ultrasound, trying to make out the “smudge” that is their unborn child. Colby recounts a nightmare she had in which their baby was born two-dimensional, like a paper cutout. The play then implies that worst fears have been realized and their child is born with terrible deformities and cognitive disabilities. The baby lies unseen in a dainty cradle overlaid with multicolored tubes as hospital machinery beeps. When they bring little Cassandra and her life-support system home, Colby can’t stop referring to her child as “it.” Nick tries to be upbeat, but won’t call his mom or let his brother Pete (Shane Solo) see the baby. Alone with her child, Colby admits, “I don’t love you. I hope that’s okay.” But then something very sci-fi occurs between mother and child.
Axler’s script messes with reality and makes manifest the mind’s darkest what-ifs about parenthood. Director Ryan Maxwell and the actors don’t get their arms entirely around “Smudge,” though they give it an affecting try.
The stagings of all three plays are bare-bones, with simple backdrops (scenery by Maureen Boman) and just a bench, a swing set, a chair and that cradle for “Smudge.” Chris Holland’s deft lighting shifts help all three pieces hit their emotional marks.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
“Three Plays About the Nuclear/Unclear Family”: “Benched” by Allyson Currin and “Bleed” by Renee Calarco, a pair of one-acts directed by Matt Ripa; and “Smudge,” a full-length play by Rachel Axler, directed by Ryan Maxwell. Costume design, Adalia Tonneyck. “Benched” and “Bleed” run about 1 hour 45 minutes, including intermission. “Smudge” runs about two hours with intermission. Presented in repertory through May 19 by Pinky Swear Productions at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Visit www.pinkyswear-productions.com.