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The Ugly One

Marius von Mayenburg's play about a man who undergoes plastic surgery is both hilarious and incisive.

Alfredo Narciso in The Ugly One
(© Julieta Cervantes)
Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One, running at Soho Rep in a co-production with the Play Company, may be the breeziest yet most densely packed 60 minutes of theater audiences will have the chance to savor this season. While the work often proves hilarious, before the piece has reached its überly ironic conclusion, it also provides an incisive look at conformity and the way in which society champions homogeneity.

At the center of the piece is a Lette (Alfredo Narciso), a man who's developed a new kind of plug device that will revolutionize his industry. Unfortunately, as the play begins, Lette learns that he will not be the man who will be introducing his invention at an important conference. Instead, Lette's boss Scheffler (Andrew Garman) has chosen Karlmann (Steven Boyer), one of the research assistants, to be the company's spokesperson. Scheffler's reason? Lette is simply too ugly to be effective in public.

This news shocks Lette, who soon discovers that his wife Fanny (Lisa Joyce) has also always felt the same way about him, but has learned to live with his looks. Eventually, Lette opts to have plastic surgery, and the result is so successful that men around the globe begin to have the same procedure, transforming themselves into his doppelgangers.

This delightfully absurd scenario reaches unexpected comic heights as the play unfolds and the humor in von Mayenburg's script (being performed in a graceful translation by Maja Zade) becomes all the more powerful thanks to the work of the fine company.

Narciso traverses Lette's journey from ordinary man to unwitting human status symbol with finesse. During the show's early scenes, Lette's disbelief that he has been a walking eyesore can be painfully touching thanks to Narciso's fine work, and by the time the play has ended, his ability to combine Lette's inherent goodness with a painful-to-bear arrogance is particularly satisfying.

Equally impressive is Joyce's dual turn as wife Fanny and as a plastic surgery-addicted dowager, also named Fanny, who becomes one of many women Lette beds. Joyce imbues Lette's spouse with a sweet earnestness that makes her admissions about her feelings for her husband's looks sadly funny, and as the older woman, she offers a performance that is a hysterical caricature, seemingly aging in the span of a second while mentally injecting gallons of collagen into her lips.

Boyer's work in his two roles is equally amusing. He makes Karlmann's oily ambition something to concurrently despise and savor, and his work as the dowager's gay son is a marvel of sublimated confusion and edgy lust. As Lette's boss -- and later his surgeon -- Garman's work is solidly (and appropriately) dry, and during the play's final moments, his work has surprising gravitas.

Daniel Aukin's rapid-fire production unfolds in a sparsely furnished sterile environment from scenic designer Eugene Lee which seems all the more clinical thanks to the stark white light that designer Matt Frey imposes on the space. The physical production invites audiences to mentally dissect the comic action, and it is almost certain that they will after this richly layered show has ended.