Ugly Lies The Bone, a new play with Mamie Gummer as a severely injured veteran, recalls the original spirit of the Roundabout Theater, which began 50 years ago in the basement below a supermarket. It’s now an empire, its non-profit status more a legal designation than a helpful description, given its three Broadway theaters, generally high-ticket prices, and star-driven programming.
But for nine seasons now, the Roundabout’s Underground series, held in its 62-seat Black Box Theatre in the basement of its Off-Broadway building, has showcased the work of emerging playwrights. Tickets cost $25 to see the latest Underground offering, Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino, who updates a familiar but important story.
Jess (Gummer) has returned to her hometown in Florida after her third tour of Afghanistan, where she was set on fire by an improvised explosive device, scarring her beyond recognition, resulting in innumerable surgeries, and causing her relentless pain.
To alleviate her pain, Jess is undergoing a new form of pain management – virtual reality. As the disembodied voice who is overseeing the video game treatment says to Jess: “It’s the same as when you were a child and your mother said look over here so you didn’t notice while she ripped your band-aid off. That’s all we’ll do. Distract the brain….”
The performance I attended featured a talk-back afterwards, in which the playwright explained she had been inspired by an article about this treatment, which has proven more effective than any drugs; we also met the heads of a company called DeepStreamVR, pioneers in the use of virtual reality for pain relief.
Director Patricia McGregor, working with a tiny stage and an obviously low budget, asks us mostly to imagine this virtual reality. We see a couple of projections, and look at Jess wearing the goggles while the disembodied voice offers instructions, but the design of Ugly Lies the Bone pales besides that of the recent New York production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, which depicts a dystopian future where people have abandoned the real world for virtual ones.
Ferrentino is more sanguine than Haley about our age of technology, but also suggests its downsides. Jess is not the only one who has become unrecognizable; so has her hometown, which is suffering economic hardship because of the dismantling of NASA’s nearby shuttle program. The play is set during the last shuttle flight, which was in 2011.
But the playwright has more on her mind than matters of technology, exploring themes that transcend our particular time and place. The unwieldy title is taken from a quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone.
Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.
It’s not just the town’s ill fortune that has changed the people she knew before she left – her sister Kacie (Karron Graves), their mother (Caitlin O’Connell, who also plays “the Voice” of the nurse), and Stevie (Chris Stack), whom we soon discover is her ex-boyfriend – ex, because he had given her an ultimatum not to sign up for duty for a third time. As fascinating as the virtual reality treatment is, what’s at the heart of Ferrentino’s play – and what works best — is Jess’s interaction with the other characters, including her strange resentment of Kacie’s new boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), and the way both she and they are adjusting to the inexorable passage of time and the changes it brings. The play allows its characters to be off-putting — the two men in particular frequently weigh in somewhere between goofy and obnoxious — while ultimately sympathetic. The uniformly spot-on cast makes them credible and moving.
Gummer is probably most recognized as the star of several failed TV series (Emily Owens, M.D. and Off The Map), and the recurring wily attorney Nancy Crozier in The Good Wife, and best-known still as Meryl Streep’s oldest daughter; indeed, she played Streep’s daughter in the summer movie Ricki and the Flash. Her mastery of the challenging role of portraying a difficult person consumed by pain is all the more affecting because she’s right there on stage, just a few feet away from us.
“Virtual Reality is a place where you go; it’s not a thing that you look at,” Howard Rose of DeepStreamVR said during the talk-back. Isn’t that a beautiful description of theater when it’s at its best?
Ugly Lies The Bone is on stage at the Black Box Theatre of the Roundabout’s Harold And Miriam Steinberg Center For Theatre (111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036, west of Sixth Avenue) through November 22, 2015. Tickets and Details