Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, directed by Cole Lewis, at Yale Cabaret is an absurdist parable, satiric about the cult of beauty that, in one way or another, has always plagued the human species. Maybe “plagued” isn’t the word; maybe it’s more like “nagged.” The play, I suppose, wants us to ask ourselves how big a part appearance plays in our estimations of ourselves and others. Is identity only skin deep? And how deep is that question?
The best thing here is the cast who are game for the alterations in character they must enact. Everyone gets two roles except for Mitchell Winter as the main character, Lette, who transforms from an appallingly ugly inventor of a necessary little gadget to the flawlessly attractive spokesperson for the company that makes the gadget. We also meet his wife Fanny (Michelle McGregor), who dutifully managed to overlook her husband’s unsightliness; McGregor also plays an aging (though surgically enhanced) groupie who lusts, with avid Germanic creepiness, for Lette post-surgery. Then there’s Dan O’Brien as Karlmann, initially a better-looking assistant at the company who gets passed-over once Lette looks good; O’Brien is also the creepy German woman’s even creepier son, who also has desires for Lette, and for his mom, and, potentially, just about anyone. Jabari Brisport rounds out the cast as Scheffler, the unflappable, moisturzing boss at the company and the rather campy surgeon who undertakes the momentous task of altering Lette’s features. The operation is such a success that the good doctor undertakes the manufacture of the same face for dozens of others who want to look that good. Soon Karlmann is sporting the same face as Lette, and if identity is only skin deep, why wouldn’t Fanny be just as happy with Karlmann?
If that strikes you as not a particularly compelling question, then you might be less than entertained by The Ugly One through its entire running time. Which is to say, as farce, it's lively enough, but it’s hard to see the play as anything more than an extended skit. Maybe the dialogue is better in von Mayenburg’s native German. As translated by Maja Zade into English, no one says anything very interesting and von Mayenburg’s idea of pointed humor is to have the mom impale her son on a strap-on phallus as he lavishes affection on Lette. The extended operation sequence, with shadow puppets, like Lette’s suicidal argument between his before-and-after selves in an elevator rushing him to the top of a building, tends to run on longer than is necessary to get the idea across. But that could be said about much of the hi-jinx here.
One suspects that, in a sense, the actors are too good for the one-dimensional figures they’re asked to play. McGregor does all she can with both Teutonic vamp and confused wife; O’Brien is aggressively repressed as the son; Brisport’s fawning surgeon put me in mind of Peter Lorre, which spells creepy with a capital C, and Winter keeps the main character in a kind of clueless vacuum. His best sequence is at the end when he is confronted by the son looking like his own spitting—or rather kissing—image.
As a send-up of our image-conscious society, I’d say von Mayenburg’s satire doesn’t even constitute a flesh wound.
Which is a nice way to segue into a few other announcements. An evening at the theater is only as good as the play—in my view—and I’m convinced that YSD student playwrights can do better than the last two Cab offerings. To see if I’m right, get tickets now for the Carlotta festival which runs May 6-14, and features the final thesis projects of three graduating playwrights: MJ Kaufman, Sagittarius Ponderosa; Amelia Roper, Lottie in the Late Afternoon; Justin Taylor, House Beast (more about the plays soon).
AND… The Yale Summer Cabaret has announced the line-up and schedule of its “Summer of Giants”—which is to say the Cab will be producing plays by great names in the history of theater: Molière, Tartuffe; Strindberg, Miss Julie; Lorca, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife; Williams, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel; Churchill, Heart's Desire and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You. With that kind of roster, you can’t go wrong—and seeing how such works come off in the Cab’s intimate space is well worth checking out. The Artistic Director for the Summer Cabaret is Dustin Wills, who, this past year, brought us the knock-down, fuck-out domestic comic-drama Blueberry Toast (one of the best shows this year, written by YSD playwright Mary Laws), as well as a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland take on Shakespeare’s Richard II. Expect good things to come.
The Ugly One
By Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Cole Lewis
Dramaturg: Sarah Krasnow; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Lighting Designer: Benjamin Ehrenreich; Composer: Steve Brush; Sound Designers: Steve Brush; Tyler Kieffer; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Technical Director: Alex Bergeron; Producer and Stage Manager: Jennifer Lagundino
217 Park Street
April 11-13, 2013