Her name is Jess, and half her face and right arm have been severely burned during three tours of duty in Afghanistan, leaving her disfigured, disabled and angry. Sudden noises trigger flashbacks. Her sister and friends in the Florida town she has returned home to are sympathetic but keep a necessary distance from the literal and physical rawness of her mere presence. To treat the unyielding pain, she is undergoing a new form of therapy in which Virtual Reality headgear and a guide with a voice like Siri’s takes her out of the present and away to the cool, snowy idyll of her dreams.
That’s the world of Ugly Lies The Bone, Lindsey Ferrentino’s brief, intense drama that stars Mamie Gummer as Jess and opens the ninth season of Roundabout Underground, the developmental program of the Roundabout Theatre Company that has produced several outstanding new plays in the tiny black box below the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. Gummer made her New York stage debut on this theater a decade ago (in Mr. Marmalade) and recently appeared opposite her mother, Meryl Streep, as the daughter in Jonathan Demme’s film Ricki And The Flash.
Ugly Lies The Bone is clearly the work of a young talent with plenty ahead of her. It’s timely, compelling and as current as you could want; brava to a playwright who focuses on the combat experiences of a woman. It’s also self-consciously bleak and overwrought, which is not to suggest that the subject is ripe for glossing. Only that Jess’ return from the war doesn’t need the underlining it sometimes gets in Patricia McGregor’s alternately brisk and heavy-handed production.
There’s some relief in the VR scenes (the play has been partly underwritten by DeepStream VR, which is at the forefront of this technology), which have the trippy effect of bringing us along on Jess’ mental journeys away from pain and reality. And there’s something quite moving about her sad, doomed reaching out to her married ex-boyfriend (the excellent Chris Stack), a slacker who makes no excuses.
Gummer, her face half-obscured by an effectively grotesque mask, is similarly sad and doomed in this compellingly committed performance. Ugly Lies The Bone offers no relief, no hope, no escape from the pall of Jess’ pain and anger equal to what she herself gets when she dons that VR gear. Wish I were there.