Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Alfredo Narciso & Lisa Joyce in "The Ugly One". Photo: Julieta Cervantes

An attractive face is a form of social currency, a fact attested to in fairy tales and regularly touted by modern-day scientific studies. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, playing at SoHo Rep through February 26, mines the correlation between good looks and power, making the implicit explicit in an absurd drama that focuses—unconventionally, but refreshingly—on a man instead of a woman.

This bitter comedy, rife with social commentary, follows the fortunes of an unspeakably ugly man (Lette) who undergoes cosmetic surgery to get a new face. His new, extraordinarily handsome visage transforms his life: he is immediately successful at his work, and at conferences, queues of women fight to offer companionship after his presentations. Not all of the effects of this seismic change, however, are positive. Lette’s behavior shifts towards condescending entitlement, and as he becomes a poster child for the wonders of plastic surgery, his face is mass-produced, prompting all kinds of identity confusion.

There are lots of layers here, as many as the gauze bandages sported by patients post-surgery. The staging is spare, with an almost clinical feel, yet highly theatrical. Under the direction of Daniel Aukin, each of the four cast members deftly rotates between several roles, and the split-second flips between characters (youthful wife to aging mistress, boss to plastic surgeon) add a frisson to the action. The fishbowl, “I’m sizing you up” mentality is reflected in the audience/stage configuration, which places the stage between parallel sets of risers; I found myself periodically assessing the faces across from me.

By taking cosmetic surgery to fantastical extremes, Mayenburg teases the link between the external and internal, the impact of outward appearance on behavior, and the malleable understanding of “identity.” You laugh while you’re in the theater, but you walk out the door thinking.

[Postscript: Last week’s New Yorker includes a fascinating article on facial transplants as an extreme form of reconstructive surgery. In short, a victim of a terrible accident gets a new face. Eerily familiar.]

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