November 7, 2015

"Kill Floor" & "Ugly Lies the Bone" Showcase Marginal Lives—and Promising Playwrights

This past week, Adam Szymkowicz posted the 800th interview he's done over the past six years on his website "I Interview Playwrights" (click here to read it).  Many of his subjects have won awards, done fellowships and had readings at prestigious places but only true diehards will have heard of most of them because there simply aren't enough chances for young playwrights to get their work before real-live audiences.

Which is why I so appreciate Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 and the Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground series, both of which specialize in putting on well-cast productions of new plays by fledgling playwrights in their small black box theaters and charging just $25 a ticket as a way to encourage theatergoers to take a chance on seeing them—and to bring in new theatergoers who haven't seen much at all.

Each company is currently running a play centered around the kind of people (in this case, working class women) whose stories are seldom told on stage and while neither work is anywhere near perfect, both are worth seeing.

Abe Koogler's Kill Floor, which will end its run at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater next weekend, focuses on Andy, an ex-con who's trying to get her life back together after serving time for dealing drugs. 

But the only job Andy can find is in a slaughter house where she has to strip carcasses before the animals are completely dead and the only home she can afford is too tiny to accommodate the resentful son she had to leave in the care of strangers while she was in prison.

Andy's only hope for a better life is to sleep with her boss, who's a nice guy but married and not above dangling the possibility of a job away from the horrors of the titular kill floor in exchange for favors. 

In the meantime, Andy's biracial son Brendan, whom she calls B, is wrestling not only with conflicted feelings about his mother but unrequited ones about another boy at school who seems willing to hang around only when B supplies him with pot and blow jobs.

Marin Ireland is achingly good as Andy, who knows how the rest of the world sees her and knows, too, that the odds are stacked against her being anything else, a realization underscored in a poignant scene in which Andy attempts to bond with a more affluent woman she meets in a supermarket. 

And the baby-faced Nicholas L. Ashe (click here to read a Q&A with him) is totally convincing as her teenage son B, creating a heartrending portrait of a youngster tottering on a high rope between boyhood and manhood, with no security net underneath.

Koogler and director Lila Neugebauer (click here to read an interview with her) try to relieve the grimness of Andy and B's lives with comic relief supplied by B's crush Simon, a white kid who affects the mannerisms of a black rapper, but the play is better at charting the emotional damage that society too often inflicts on its weakest members.

The damages are both emotional and physical in Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone, which will play through Dec. 6 at the Roundabout's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. It tells the story of Jess, who, during her third tour in Afghanistan, was the victim of an IED attack that's left her with severe burns over most of her body and face, in need of multiple operations (three alone to reconstruct her eyelid) in severe pain (hovering between 8 and 9 on a scale of 0 to 10) and in fear of crippling flashbacks that can be set off by the sight of a burning match or an unexpected sound.

Jess finds some relief in therapeutic virtual reality sessions that take her mind off the pain by transporting her—and the audience—to the place of her dreams, a snow-covered field  that is far away from her every day life in a sultry Florida town grappling with hard times caused by the shutdown of NASA's shuttle program.

When Jess leaves the rehab sessions, she has to deal with the actual reality of an old boyfriend who has married someone else and a mother who has dementia and may not recognize her.

Working with what seems to have been an extremely limited budget, Patricia McGregor's directorial options are limited but Ferrentino has created nuanced characters and McGregor has gotten fine work out of her five-member cast.

Mamie Gummer, who has spent the last four years doing TV series like "Emily Owens, M.D. and movies like "Ricki and the Flash" opposite her mom Meryl Streep, turns in the best performance I've seen her give (click here to read an interview with the actress). She makes clear the pain Jess suffers, without succumbing to the stereotypes of saintly victim or cocky survivor. 

Both plays felt simultaneously overstuffed (I'm not sure we needed the coming out subplot for B in Kill Floor or the deadbeat boyfriend of Jess' sister in Ugly Lies the Bone) and slightly undercooked (neither runs longer than 90 minutes and both seem to stop mid-thought) but it's clear that their authors have curiosity about lives outside the theatrical mainstream and talent that should be nurtured. I'm eager to see what each of them does in the future and which other writers these terrific initiatives showcase next.

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