Olivia Oguma and Kel Martin in BFE(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Olivia Oguma and Kel Martin in BFE
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
When the audience enters the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, Isabel (Kate Rigg) is already occupying the sofa on Takeshi Kata's impressionistic set, watching television. It comes to light once Julia Cho's BFE begins that Isabel never leaves the house; television is her only source of information about how the world works. "I watch television -- I know," she says. What Isabel -- who's had "Caucasianizing" cosmetic surgery -- knows is the American definition of ideal beauty. Attributing her wisdom to the telly, she insists that "True beauty is not born. True beauty is an act of will. And all you have to do is choose it."

What playwright Cho knows, as Isabel's calculatedly foolish speech implies, is that definitions of ideal beauty are tyrannical and destructive to anyone in a consumer society who's genetically predisposed to fall short of the supposed requirements. Cho is hip to the reality that The American Dream is The American Scheme, and she'll be damned if anyone who sees BFE will miss the point. By the way, BFE stands for "Bum Fuck, Egypt" and is meant to be a synonym for Everyburg, USA.

As Cho plots it, the primary victim of beauty's ugly dictates is Isabel's daughter Panny (Olivia Oguma), a 14-year-old who considers her Asian face and figure a detriment even as she resists her mother's suggestion that she undergo a "beautifying" surgical procedure. Panny expresses her discontent directly to the audience in a series of monologues during which she also refers to rapes of blonde women in her town. (The implication is that blondes don't always have more fun.)

When Panny isn't filling us in on the troubling local news and her own growing pains, she's chumming around with her best friend, a part-time drug store employee named Nancy (Kel Martin); or she's in puppy love with a likeable 20-year-old Mormon named Hugo (James McMenamin); or she's exchanging missives with Korean pen pal Hae-Yoon (Sue Jean Kim), who prefers being called Elizabeth and who has been dressed by costume designer Jayde Chabot in charming, hilarious contemporary motley. Hae-Yoon's letters are delivered as monologues and provide an upbeat counterpoint to Panny's worried confidences.

While Panny bears the brunt of the beauty siege, according to the axiom that the ignorance of the mothers is visited on the daughters, her egotistical mom and her mom's brother Lefty (James Saito) also suffer. Returning a pair of earrings that he had bought Panny for her 14th birthday without noticing that her ears aren't pierced, Lefty meets free spirit Evvie (Karen Kandel). The two are immediately attracted to each other but their similar histories of having had no sexual liaisons for some time render them slow to acknowledge a shared attraction. When they finally proclaim their interest in one another, complications ensue that have to do with Lefty's sense of family obligations.

Difficulties also dog Isabel as a result of her self-improvement project and her accompanying agoraphobia. Her fantasies are populated by a fantasy romantic male (Jeremy Hollingworth) who occasionally charges in with manly ardor and quotes Douglas MacArthur. But Isabel's lone real-life physical encounter is with a pizza delivery boy -- also played by Hollingworth, for irony's sake.

Cho definitely seems to understand what it is to be a young girl who doesn't look like what young boys are told is attractive. (Is this play autobiographical? Has the anger and frustration vented here been a long time simmering?) And the scenes of young love budding -- including the older lovers in their second childhood -- are Cho's best work. But the dramatist's insights aren't new, and she presses them home with no subtlety whatsoever. Worse, in her determination to shock the audience, Cho forces upon Panny a predicament that the audience can see coming from a mile away -- or, at least, from the moment when Panny mentions that there's a rapist on the loose and the playwright dispatches an unidentified man (Scott Hudson) into Nancy's workplace for some shoplifting. Neither does Cho do herself any dramaturgical favors by including the following line, uttered by Hae-Yoon at a crucial moment: "Remember that you are in America! How can life be bad?"

BFE, which has been directed by Gordon Edelstein with as much finesse as the script allows, clearly benefits from the actors' contributions. Kandel and Saito provide touching moments in their initially hopeful encounters, while younger cast members Martin and McMenamin lend verisimilitude to the proceedings. Oguma would probably not pass for 14 were she placed in a lineup of eighth- and ninth-grade students, but she nevertheless has the kid thing down pat. She makes it work. It's Cho, gratuitously providing a grim final image to drive home her single-minded message, who has trouble making work a pessimism that hasn't been earned. Unlike Isabel's belief about beauty, successful playwriting involves more than an act of will.