American play is 'Ugly' at London's National Theatre

UGLYBONE07

LONDON  — An import from America, Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino concerns discoveries in treating chronic and extreme pain through virtual reality technology. The essay in the show’s program tells me there have been successful experiments with highly encouraging results. This may be good news medically, although it is not particularly good news theatrically, or at least not in this crass production at the National Theatre. 

The central character, Jess (Kate Fleetwood in a courageous if one-note performance), is a battlefront veteran and the victim of an IED that exploded during one of her three tours of duty: her body, face, and life are wrecked. She sums herself up as “good at my job, I obey orders.” She has just returned home to a town near Cape Canaveral, a town built around NASA’s space program. The last launch was in 2011, and, with the main industry gone, there are no jobs, and the town is just about finished.

Her sister (Olivia Darnley) is married to an unemployed loser (Kris Marshall) who mistakenly thinks he’s “a catch,” and her mother (Buffy Davis, who also provides the obnoxiously patronizing voiceover in Jess’s headset) is demented. Jess’s old boyfriend (Ralf Little), who works in a gas station’s fast-food store, has made no effort to see her, not even to send a card during her 14 months in the hospital.

The set (designed by Es Devlin) is intended to show us what Jess sees through her therapeutic virtual-reality headset; the visuals are supposed to create images of a world so enchanting that it can distract a patient from unbearable pain. All they do is distract us from the drama, being neither beautiful nor enchanting.

But the real problem, besides the superficiality of the script, is Indhu Rubasingham’s direction: With the actors shouting amateurishly and using labored American accents bearing no resemblance to Florida speech, the results left this American critic wishing she’d seen the show in an American theater.

The title comes form a bitter little poem by Albert Einstein. It seems a larger and more profound comment than Ferrentino’s play can achieve:

Beauty is but skin deep,
Ugly lies the bone.
Beauty dies and fades away,
But ugly holds its own.