The Ugly One
Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Directed by Daniel Aukin
"You're a very beautiful human being," Fanny tells her husband Lette, "but I'm afraid your face is very, very ugly." This is only the first of many twists in Marius von Mayenburg's scalpel-sharp satire The Ugly One, having its American premiere—in a translation by Maja Zade—at Soho Rep (through February 26). Lette (the very handsome Alfredo Narcisco), an engineer at a company manufacturing electrical plugs, begins as the butt of a Kafkaesque corporate joke, forced to let his assistant Karlmann (Steven Boyer) market his invention because of his heretofore unmentioned ugliness. But the German playwright quickly turns his send-up of white-collar cruelty into a parody of uninhibited vanity and rampant narcissism, which finally transforms into a sci-fi rumination on the nature of beauty and individuality. Though the closing minutes' meltdown disappoints slightly, the forgoing hour of fast-paced and escalating lunacy is superb.
Lette, having been informed of his astoundingly ugly face, pays a plastic surgeon (Andrew Garman) to make him beautiful. The transformation's repercussions—constant traveling to conferences, affairs with possible plug buyers, intolerably condescending demeanor toward and estrangement from Fanny (Lisa Joyce)—could sustain an entire play, but von Mayenburg takes things further. The new face's success brings the surgeon fame, and others pay to get Lette's looks, so that scores of men now look just like him and he's asking to have his ugly face back.
This is all accomplished with no makeup, minimal props, and instantaneous transitions between scenes, the four excellent actors shifting poses, expressions and accents to juggle their multiple characters. The minimal set design by Eugene Lee leaves room for risers on either side of the stage, so the actors are surrounded, their subtle variations between characters easily legible. A surreal, split personality climax doesn't come off so well, through no fault of Narcisco's or Daniel Aukin, whose direction is excellent. Still, this play's prodding unbridled self-love and relinquished individuality ends with an unsettlingly perfect kiss.
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)