The Ugly Man
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 14, 2006
Canadian playwright/provocateur Brad Fraser does something really interesting in his dark, cynical play The Ugly Man: he devalues human life so much that it becomes funny. Populating his tale with an unnerving rogues' gallery of characters driven by money, power, and sex, Fraser steers The Ugly Man straight into Showgirls territory: one has to laugh at these characters because they're too calculatingly ruthless to be real. It's a risky tactic, one that can only succeed if everyone involved buys into the strategy one hundred percent (the undying conviction of the actors is a big reason why Showgirls is now an enduring cult classic). For their new revival of The Ugly Man, Boomerang Theatre Company has luckily assembled a game and robust company that is perfectly tuned into Fraser's wavelength. The straighter they play it, the funnier everything becomes, even though the audience intellectually knows they should be horrified by the play's cruelty. By turns both hilarious and chilling, The Ugly Man is a theatrical experience that lingers with the viewer long after the show is over.
The setting is a remote ranch where beautiful and spoiled teenage heiress Veronica wiles away the days before her wedding to the milquetoasty Acker, the rich young heir of a neighboring family, yearning for adventure and excitement. Her autocratic and suspicious mother, Sabina, rules over Veronica with an iron hand. Hell-bent on preserving her daughter's virginity until her wedding night (because, according to her, "men respect virgins"), Sabina shelters Veronica from any possible bad influence. That includes Acker's best friend, Cole, a handsome scoundrel with a hedonistic twinkle in his eye.
Enter the title character: Forest, a burly, stoic drifter who gets hired as a ranch hand, and is quickly put in charge of looking after Veronica. He is, indeed, ugly, boasting a hideous disfigurement on one side of his face. Everyone is initially uncomfortable around Forest because of his appearance, but his reliability and hard work ethic soon put him in everyone's favor.
The intrigue begins in earnest, though, as everyone in The Ugly Man is revealed to have an agenda. Treachery and deception abound as they start showing their true colors, propelling the play toward a brutal and bloody conclusion.
Doesn't sound so funny, does it? I wouldn't have thought so either if I hadn't seen it. But, I assure you, The Ugly Man is very funny. In director Christopher Thomasson's confident hands, Fraser's play becomes dark, sinister comedy. He opens the show with Marilyn Manson's forceful, driving "The Beautiful People," giving the audience a hint of the twisted tale to follow. Later, he concludes a scene featuring the start of a rough sexual tryst on a dark-and-stormy night with Eddie Rabbitt's upbeat 1980s hit, "I Love a Rainy Night." In another scene, the way Thomasson has one character tease another by lasciviously polishing a steel pipe is torturously funny.
Fraser's warped sense of humor helps. In a play where the leading lady's virginity is a highly-prized commodity, he surrounds her with sex-crazed schemers. A couple of the characters reveal surprising bisexual inclinations. One of them, given to an occasional romp with the play's resident gay character, entices his paramour in one scene with the utterance, "Come on—I've got some fresh motor oil." And, off they go for another steamy rendezvous.
By the way, you may have noticed that I'm writing about The Ugly Man and its events a bit generally. That's only because it contains so many unpredictable twists and turns that to reveal any of them would spoil the fun of seeing them.
The triumph of this production is the savvy way the cast handles this material. Barbara Drum Sullivan, Bret Jaspers, and Joe Whelski are all rock solid as Sabina, Acker, and Cole, respectively. Jaime West is sublimely libidinous as the scheming and sexually voracious maid, Lottie. As Forest, Aaron Simms gives a splendid performance that walks the line between menacing and seductive beautifully. Paul Caiola's performance as Acker's mousy brother, Leslie, is heart-wrenching and touching. And, Jennifer Lyn Perez is excellent as the ravishing Veronica, capturing her insouciant upper-class entitlement perfectly. All the actors imbue both their performances and the production with a sly, wicked humor that is more than appropriate.
Despite my enthusiasm for this production, The Ugly Man isn't going to be for everyone. It is very violent (kudos to fight director Carrie Brewer for the convincing onstage carnage), and has more than the usual amount of bare flesh. (I tip my hat again to Thomasson for what may be the best handling of onstage nudity I've ever seen. In this context, it's integral to the story, not just titillating. Of course, any audience member who gets aroused by it might be as bent as most of these characters. But, hey, no judgments.) But, for theatergoers who are up for a little something different, and are perhaps in need of some droll nihilism, The Ugly Man will satisfy. It's a new cult classic in the making.