Lette (Alfredo Narciso) discovers an unwelcome truth about his looks when his boss tells him he won’t be going to a big convention to present his new invention to the world. When the outraged Lette demands to know why, his embarrassed boss Scheffler (Andrew Garman) hems and haws before coming out with it.
“we can’t stand the sight of you,” he says with a shrug. “You can’t sell anything with that face.”
the reeling Lette next confronts his wife, Fanny (Lisa Joyce), who sincerely professes her love but doesn’t give much comfort on the sore subject. “I’ve always admired you for coping so well,” she coos.
“With what?” asks Lette, whose intelligence, it sometimes seems, does not far outstrip his looks.
“the fact that you’re unspeakably ugly,” Fanny replies.
Understandably dismayed, Lette consults a plastic surgeon, also played by mr. Garman and also called Scheffler, at least in the text. (Four actors play all the characters, with only mr. Narciso sticking to one role.) the doctor is at first bewildered and unenthusiastic. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” he confesses.
but after a series of procedures a miracle is effected: Lette is not just presentable but eye-glazingly gorgeous.
“Is that my husband?” Fanny says, wonder and lust merging in Ms. Joyce’s purring voice.
“I don’t know,” Lette says as he ponders the results. “I don’t know this person.”
the literal truth of Lette’s startled confession is one of the bald philosophical points of mr. von Mayenburg’s absurdist comic fantasy, as is the fundamental importance of aesthetics in our responses to others. Lette, Fanny and his co-workers soon learn how very efficacious stunning good looks can be, as he becomes a veritable star in the plug-manufacturing world, and the object of ravenous sexual attention from men and women alike.
in the glow of all this new interest, Lette is gradually transformed from a likable, meek husband and reliable worker to a preening egotist who tells his wife she’ll just have to accept being one of a couple of dozen lovers. since we are ineluctably shaped by the reflecting mirror that is society, mr. von Mayenburg suggests, once the mirror begins reflecting something different back to us, we become entirely different people.
the play presents its ideas with a starchy comic verve, although I suspect a lot of the German knee-slappers have been watered-down in Maja Zade’s translation. some exchanges that are presumably meant to be funny fall pretty flat.
in any case mr. von Mayenburg’s notions about human superficiality and the links between our looks and our identity are not really that striking or subtle. we all know there’s a reason that most fabulously wealthy movie stars are easy on the eyes, and it ain’t their winning personalities. When various people in Lette’s life begin ordering up the same face, you might offer up a mild chuckle. but walking down a Manhattan street you meet women wearing the same set of engorged lips every couple of blocks.
under the direction of Daniel Aukin, the cast lights into the roles with gusto. Ms. Joyce plays it straight as the bewildered wife, but transforms herself into a predatory crone drooling with lust as a corporate client who blackmails the newly gorgeous Lette into an affair. Steven Boyer (fresh from “Hand to God”) plays her homosexual son, likewise lusting after Lette, and his beady-eyed, envious co-worker, both called Karlmann and both eventually transformed into Lette clones. mr. Garman is sternly Germanic in his roles as Lette’s boss and doctor, while the suitably handsome mr. Narciso, in the central role, makes clear the various turning points in Lette’s journey from unpleasant self-awareness to psychological dislocation.
Although its comic vibe remains pretty tempered throughout, the play borders on existential farce when Lette suddenly finds his perfect looks replicated by almost everyone around him, and he finds not just his face but his life being usurped. but even at just an hour, with its scenes spliced together tightly, “the ugly One” belabors both its jokes and its ideas.
the gags aren’t always too subtle either. When Fanny asks why women line up to talk to him after his presentations at conventions, Lette explains, “they want me to convince them of every detail of my plug.” Snigger snigger.
The ugly One
by Marius von Mayenburg; directed by Daniel Aukin; sets by Eugene Lee; costumes by Theresa Squire; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Matt Tierney; production stage manager, Davin De Santis. Presented by Soho Rep, Sarah Benson, artistic director; Tania Camargo, executive director; Caleb Hammons, producer, and the Play Company, Kate Loewald, founding producer; Lauren Weigel, executive producer; in association with John Adrian Selzer. at the Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa; (866) 811-4111, sohorep.org. through Feb. 26. Running time: 1 hour.
WITH: Steven Boyer (Karlmann), Andrew Garman (Scheffler), Lisa Joyce (Fanny) and Alfredo Narciso (Lette).