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Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette in The Ugly One, is a handsome man. Yet not according to the characters who share the Soho Rep stage with him in Marius von Mayenburg’s barbed satire. “We can’t stand the sight of you,” his boss (Andrew Garman) confesses. Even his loving wife (Lisa Joyce) tells him, “You’re a very beautiful human being—but I’m afraid your face is very, very ugly.”
Narciso doesn’t wear any ungainly prosthetics. Nor does he contort his dark good looks into some sort of sneer. But in director Daniel Aukin’s precise and fluid take, co-produced by the Play Company, Lette does come to seem ugly before our eyes. And then, owing to radical plastic surgery (that again leaves Narciso’s face unaltered), Lette becomes indescribably handsome. But with a changed face, Lette finds his sense of self unmoored.
Von Mayenburg, a German playwright and dramaturge at Berlin’s famed Schaubühne, writes dramas that often receive comparison to the elegant postmodernism of Caryl Churchill and the brutal poetry of Sarah Kane. The London critic Michael Billington has suggested that von Mayenburg’s scripts belong to the “Fire and Fury Brigade,” for their searing contempt for bourgeois values. But The Ugly One, translated by Maja Zade, is a cooler play and seems to owe more to the European absurdist tradition, Vaclav Havel and Eugéne Ionesco particularly.
The Ugly One proposes that if surface looks can succumb to the surgeon’s scalpel, what’s on the inside is equally unstable. Appearance determines personality, and once appearance changes, only base desires—for sex, for power—remain. All the actors (the delightful Steven Boyer rounds out the strong cast) except Narciso take on more than one character, without benefit of wig or costume change. The performers are skilled enough to make these roles nevertheless distinct, but the script suggests that there’s but a hair’s breadth—or a haircut—differentiating any of us.
Running just over an hour—Soho Rep has never shied away from the short play—The Ugly One stands as an amusing and troubling exploration of exteriors and identities. With the audience ranged on two sides of Eugene Lee’s unsightly set (linoleum, fluorescents, folding chairs), you’re forced to look into the faces of your fellow spectators. Across the stage, we observe each other, male and female, old and young, alert and yawning, attractive and unbeautiful, but all, in von Mayenburg’s view, quite alike.