Copious cocaine usage. Eating talking birds raw. Sketchy sex. Destroying your close friends’ possessions.
If you enjoy the thought of any, or all, of the above, then you can get your sick thrills at “Ugly People,” by Cory Finley ’11, which premiered yesterday at the Whitney Humanities Center. But you’ll especially enjoy the show if the parts about drugs, intercourse and insanity, appeal. These items receive big billing in a show that displays more despair in one two-hour stretch than Dostoevsky fit into his entire career.
“Ugly People”’s foremost ugly person is Janna (Willa Fitzgerald ’13), a coke-abusing San Franciscan who has recently lost her lover, Brian, to heart failure. Before his death, Brian was the pioneering mind behind a startup business backed by his parents and staffed by Janna, Brian’s brother Dan (Raphael Shapiro ’13), and his close friend Toby (Paul Hinkes ’15). Both Dan and Toby join Janna in her grief; Toby shares her drug habit and all three spend the play shouting at one another in a lakeside cabin to which they, along with Dan’s longtime girlfriend Megan (Calista Small ’14), have retreated for Brian’s funeral service.
The show opens with Megan sitting in the cabin with Janna, as the two engage in barbed conversation. Megan tries to comfort Janna by touching her face a lot (a technique that she will favor throughout the play), but the only real comfort Janna seems to find comes from the alcohol that Toby and Dan show up with a few minutes into the action. After having a bit too much to drink, Janna experiences a dream/flashback sequence that incorporates a hyper, narcotics-induced rant, a frenzied make-out session and a midnight lighthouse sail in the course of maybe ten minutes.
Though the show asks its audience to accept a lot in the first two scenes, the skills of its performers make this suspension of disbelief seem not only possible, but reasonable. This holds true for no one more so than Fitzgerald: given the continuous emotional fluctuation that being a crackhead demands of her character, she plays Janna with commendable maturity, displaying subtlety in some places and hysteria in others. Especially impressive is her ability to emote on command, an ability that the show calls on frequently, whenever it asks her to take a hit. Hinkes, too, plays his role with confidence and volume befitting a much older actor, adding a layer of fear just as powerful as on-stage violence whenever he raises his voice.
Finley’s ambitious writing is tackled with poise by director Charlie Polinger ’13, whose orchestration of the production’s numerous sound cues, from beach waves to revving engines, brings gusto to scenes that might otherwise feel misplaced. Great care has also been put into prop usage: Fitzgerald was heard backstage more than once calling for “her blood,” a reference to the fake liquid that finds its way onto the hands and faces of several characters in later scenes, every time without a hint of camp.
Janna’s first bloodletting takes place after Toby and Dan have a screaming argument over who will take over as CEO of Brian’s startup after his death. Dan tells Toby that the board of directors have named him CEO, in reaction to which Toby proceeds to smash Dan and Megan’s fine china all over the cabin floor while a drug-addled Janna jeers from the sidelines. After Dan and Megan go to bed, Toby threatens to leave, but Janna convinces him to stay by cutting open her hand on the edge of a broken plate. Toby responds by forcing her onto the couch as the theater goes black.
The final scenes, to leave room for intrigue, are equally in line with the above grim happenings. And all in all, though its characters often act in criminally insane ways, “Ugly People” leaves its viewers with a creeping sense of self-awareness. By throwing the negative aspects of its characters into sharp relief, the show calls attention to the ugliness in all people, ugliness that audience members will have little difficulty pinpointing in themselves due to the sympathy produced by the show’s excellent acting and skilled direction. Though the material often seems to exist simply for shock value, Ugly People’s positive aspects nonetheless make it sure to be offensively enjoyable for even the most critical theatergoer. Give it a go, unless you’re overly attached to your own mental health.