Clever satire entertains and disturbs in The Ugly One
Also see Ed's reviews of Bulrusher and Spamalot
I'm open to the richness of on-stage naturalism, but to see young German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg's brilliant bare-bones satire The Ugly One at the Guthrie is as bracing as the first frost of fall, and it's as disconcerting as, I have to say it - a total face makeover.
For me, theater that depends not on production values, but on fine direction and acting, is theater in its highest form. With no cosmetic frou-frou, Ugly succeeds in spades in making its audience laugh uproariously and shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Director Benjamin McGovern stages the play on a naked set; his props are a table, four wooden chairs, a plug, a hammer and a sheet. Four actors assume eight roles that bleed from one scene into another with no cue, except the actors' subtle shifts in dialogue and personalities.
Ugly jabs at capitalism's blinkered focus on marketing and brand, to the point of making people into a commodity, just so long as there's a buck or two to be made. It extends the emotional fall-out of commoditization to funny but thought-provoking extremes concerning identity and deep communal anxieties.
Lette's boss denies the inventor of the revolutionary 2CK plug connector a chance to present his invention at an international conference in Switzerland. Instead, his lowly but better-looking plug-tester will make the presentation and stay in a deluxe hotel room, overlooking the Alps. It's all about marketing, Lette's boss Scheffler explains, and Lette's face can never sell anything.
Indignant Lette (Kris L. Nelson) seeks reassurance from his co-worker, Karlmann (Nathan Christopher), and his wife (Kate Eifrig,) from whom he learns that although he's a good person, neither can bear to look at him directly. When his wife reveals the bitter truth to Nelson's Lette, he compels empathy, sinking to his knees at the kitchen table, shielding his offending face from her eyes. As Lette evolves, Nelson captures his character's new arrogance and willingness to exploit.
Luverne Seifert plays Lette's ruthless boss and his equally ruthless cosmetic surgeon, a surgeon who leaps at the chance to brand and market a property.
As with the pairing of Scheffler and the surgeon, playwright Von Mayenburg cleverly matches up the roles for the play's actors. Eifrig assumes three roles as Lette's wife, who finds male beauty irresistible. Then she steps into the role of a hard-boiled nurse and an even tougher and cosmetically rearranged older business owner. Like Seifert, Eifrig is a natural comic, and in her capable hands, each woman is defined.
Nathan Christopher's stage presence speaks of vulnerability. He ably plays both Karlmann, Lette's plug tester, and the business owner's much put-upon son.
McGovern's direction is paced and slippery; in one lovemaking scene, the lovers roll over and become a different pair - stagecraft to be savored! Von Mayenburg's mercurial shifts and unexpected wit delighted me, and it would be too bad for anyone seriously interested in theater to miss this refreshing treat.
Ugly plays with Beckett-like economy; its single drawback is that it has a one week run. We should be seeing lot more of this playwright's work.
The Ugly One May 23 - June 1, 2008. Tuesday - Saturday 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 31 and Sunday June 1 1:00 p.m. Tickets $18 - $34. Call 612- 377-2224 or www.guthrietheatrer.org. Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 818, South 2nd St., Minneapolis.