The horrors of parenthood come to life in the dark comedy Smudge.

Over nine seasons and 33 productions, Washington Ensemble Theatre has done one thing consistently: Surprise us. A lot can happen in that cozy black box on the edge of Capitol Hill. I’ve seen a one-woman musical about cancer; the Faust tale reimagined as a rap video; three violent love stories staged simultaneously in a shallow pool of water.

Speaking of love: It comes in all sizes. Robot loves girl, horse loves girl, dodo loves boy, boy loves boy. WET bucks the idea that safe theater sells—like a good fringe theater should—but what makes it a great fringe theater is its ability to pick plays by new writers that get the brain working. The latest show, Smudge, by Parks and Recreation writer Rachel Axler, marks the TV writer’s theater debut with the blackest of comedies about the unspoken fears of parenthood—namely, what do we do if we give birth to a monster? New parents Nick and Colby face a harsh reality when their baby comes out—in Colby’s words—a “creature,” “hot dog,” “freak,” or, plainly put, a “smudge.” The comic relief comes from Nick’s fratty brother Pete (well done, Noah Benezra), who speaks in punchlines, but otherwise, this is a horror show—the good kind. Baby Smudge has more tubes attached than limbs and communicates by blinking its eye and making the lights flicker. It could be an alien. It could be a demon. What makes it human? That’s the Big Question of the story, though what I left thinking about, and talking about, was postpartum depression. My husband left wanting a drink.

Sure, Smudge was heavier than expected, but I’ll accept a WET challenge any day. Up next: ACT Theatre and WET will team up on The Construction Zone, a series of readings showcasing works-in-progress by playwrights from across the country. Professional actors will read the new plays in ACT’s 60-seat Lalie space, followed by a post-show discussion with the audience. The Construction Zone kicks off (with a ribbon cutting and champagne toast) on April 23 with Michael Mitnick’s Sex Lives of Our Parents—which is up there with postpartum depression for topics I don’t normally think about. Bring it on, WET.

Smudge
Thru Apr 22, Washington Ensemble Theatre, $15–$20

The Construction Zone
Apr 23–Nov 19, 7pm, ACT Theatre, $10–$20
On the calendar...
Apr 23 – Sex Lives of Our Parents by Michael Mitnick
June 18 – Modern Terrorism by Jon Kern
July 23 – Battle Hymn by Jim Leonard
Aug 27 – The Dangers of Electric Lightning by Ben Clawson