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Theatre in Review: If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka (Playwrights Horizons)

Níke Uche Kadri, Maechi Aharanwa. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I'm beginning to worry about some of our young playwrights, for whom childhood seems to be an inescapable web. Only a few days ago, I saw Jeremy O. Harris' "Daddy," in which a twentysomething artist hooks up with a sixtyish collector, and almost immediately begins sucking his thumb, speaking in a high whine, and taking part in spanking sessions. The adult sisters of Leah Nanako Winkler's God Said This can't spend five minutes together without replicating their childhood patterns. The new musical Be More Chill is a Twilight Zone-style tale about the perils of teen social anxiety; the hit ballad is sung by a character who attends a party where he spends the night hiding out in the bathroom.

Now comes Tori Sampson's rather-too-cutely titled comedy, a fable about lookism and self-acceptance starring a fetching young thing who is the victim of all who envy her perfectly symmetrical looks. Despite definite signs of talent If Pretty Hurts has several problems, not least of which is the playwright's try-anything approach, which results in a remarkably jumbled narrative. But what makes it something of a trial is its insistence on lecturing the audience at great length. Beauty is only skin deep, it says. Why can't you saps figure that out?

The action unfolds in a kind of limbo world known as Affreakah-Ammirrorikah; it is more Affreakah than the other, if only because of the way the characters dress and speak. Then again, in Louisa Thompson's baffling set design, it is a kind of glittering no-man's-land, consisting of a raised circular deck backed by a transparent surround lined in globular lightbulbs, used by Matt Frey, the lighting designer, to perform many a chase sequence. We might be on the stage of a beauty pageant, an impression that is reinforced as four young ladies are brought on, one by one, each of them avidly seeking the spotlight. First among equals is Akim, who is so beautiful that her parents never let her out of their sight, for fear of the consequences. "It is such a simple light that ugly people are granted," Akim says, in all seriousness. "All grouped up like that. I wish I had a big nose like you... I am surveying around this room at all you ugly people. So many, everywhere I look! And boy do I envy you!" It is no small tribute to the skills of Níke Uche Kadri that, despite such laments, the audience delivers a giant raspberry in her direction.

A trio of girls Akim's age take pity on her -- her parents don't even want her to have female friends -- until it becomes clear that she has caught the eye of Kasim, the local heartthrob. One of them, Massassi, is particularly galled, as she considers Kasim her personal property. It doesn't help that Massassi hates her appearance, although Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who plays her, is perfectly attractive, as is Kadri. This may be part of Sampson's point, that beauty is a matter of how one feels about oneself. The message is scrambled, however, by Dede Ayite's unflattering costumes, which leave both actresses looking rather awkward.

Anyway, Massassi schemes to have Akim tossed into a river; accompanied by Adama, a sympathetic friend, Akim ends up floating around in the deep, where, joined by a chorus of masked river spirits, they take part in an extended dance sequence with exceptionally silly choreography by Raja Feather Kelly and gorgeous, rafter-raising vocals by Carla R. Stewart, cast as as The Voice of the River. This marks the moment when If Pretty Hurts threatens to turn into a small-scale Disney girl-power musical. Then again, Disney would have made sure there were better lyrics than "Cuz I feel like reaching, reaching, reaching/And my soul is reaching, reaching/And my soul is growing, it is growing/Oooohh/And my soul, my soul is lifted, lifted, it's lifted."

Sampson has a knack for amusing throwaway gags. When one of the girls accuses Akim of having bad breath, a defender replies, "It's like she breathes out Febreeze!" Seeking revenge on Akim, Massassi says, "Let's put our Nair in her shampoo! All her hair will fall out;" another girl says, "She'll just end up looking like a better version of Lupita Nyong'o." And when the girls offer to help Akim with her household chores, one of them, furious at the list of menial tasks, snaps, "What is this? Roots?" The playwright has a nice poetic touch at times, as when Akim's father, describing her, says, "She looks like Friday evening."

But under the calculatedly ingenuous surface, there's no real sophistication, just a determination to repeatedly ram home the same banal point about the treachery of beauty. Massassi describes how "I'd scream into my pillow every morning after I'd completed my nightly ritual of balling my fists tightly, winding my arms, using all the strength of a determined seven-year-old to deliver mighty punches to my backside." Akim's mother warns her, "If you were not my daughter, did not come from my genes, I too would be a danger to you. Your mother, the woman who would die for you, if I were not of this relation, would pray to the gods to take away your beauty in the dark of the night." She adds, "There is more to life than pleasing features, I know. More to your being than what meets the eye. But the exterior is where it begins. Learn that." Akim adds, "I smile at my reflection in the mirror. Walking past it again to smile brighter. I am pleased by the way my face comes together, but this society turns pretty into a burden." It is little wonder that she cries out, "I am suffocating, Mommy!"

Such dialogue would lead one to think that If Pretty Hurts is a tense trip through a nest of vipers, but the cheerful children's-theatre presentation undermines such expectations. The play is loaded with theatrical devices that don't necessarily contribute to a coherent piece of work. There is a gaudily dressed Chorus who comments on the action -- he even calls himself a "device" -- until he is recruited to play a role in the plot. There is Kasim's apparent gift of second sight, which is brought up and used briefly, then seemingly forgotten. And there is the underwater production number that is the closest thing to a dream ballet to be seen since I don't know when. Most perplexingly, the action shifts, without resolution, to a mimed finale, in which -- just in case we haven't gotten the point -- Massassi assiduously, nervously makes herself up and dresses to go out. It is effectively handled by Crowe-Legacy; it might have been more effective if it didn't conclude with her donning what looks like a tea cozy on her shoulders, leaving one feeling that, more than anything, Massassi is a fashion victim.

It's not surprising that the director, Leah C. Gardiner, has difficulty imposing some kind of order on these proceedings, but cast often charms, even with in the thinnest of roles. This is especially so of Kadri, who does much to enliven the largely blank Akim. Crowe-Legacy gets to make more of an impression -- villains always do -- and Mirirai Sithole, as Akim's sole friend, continues to carve out her career as the voice of reason, pointing out the other characters' flaws with unfailing accuracy. Leland Fowler brings some natural charisma and a gift for high kicks to the role of Kasim. Frey's lighting also brings some appealing rainbow-colored effects to a party scene and Ian Scot's original music and sound design are totally solid.

Of course, after two hours of catfighting, it all turns out to be the fault of Akim's father, no matter that he plays a relatively minor part in the story. Adama, Sithole's character, admonishes him, saying, "How is it that you can't see the part you played in all of this? With due respect, father Chagu, it was you who brought upon us all this separation. It was you who used us to exemplify her attributes." That patriarchy is identified as the source of all evil isn't surprising -- that is the current fashion. But it does little to make If Pretty Hurts feel like anything other than an also-ran next to more-vigorously written plays like School Girls; Or, The Mean African Girls Play, The Wolves, or Dance Nation. Adolescent self-loathing can be an effective subject for drama, but it also has its limits. -- David Barbour

(11 March 2019)

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