The definitive article “The” at the beginning of Marlus von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is perfect. Without giving away too much of the plot, Lette (Sean Dillon), comes to realize that he is extraordinarily ugly (even his wife will only look at him in the left eye…). His drastic efforts to improve himself take a deeply macabre turn, throwing all his personal connections into question. Of course, just because he is singled out as the ugly one doesn’t mean the others don’t have neuroses connected to their looks. The play is a surprisingly heartfelt yet tongue-and-cheek romp through our near-universal desire for others’ approval.
The Ugly One (originally Der Häßliche, translated from the original German by Maja Zade), has an internal logic and a very particular kind of patter that take a scene or two to really sink in. But once they do, the show itself is mesmerizing--no wonder Walking Shadow Theatre Company chose to add this to their season! This small and dynamic cast, directed by Amy Rummenie, knows when to offer gravitas and when to pile on the camp. Everyone except Sean Dillon is double cast, leading to scene/character changes that can happen almost instantaneously while Lette is mid-sentence/gesture.
As Lette’s wife Fanny, his would-be lover/benefactress, and a nurse, Julie Ann Nevill bodily embraces her characters. Fanny in particular is chirpy and hard to pin down -- her first scene with Lette (where she reveals how monstrous he actually is) manages to be both hilarious and deeply sad, with her gaze never completely falling on him. She says she sees him, but she clearly doesn’t. Conveying this epistemic distance is so hard but she captures it in her every movement and even the way she dismissively laughs.
Rounding out the cast are Edwin Strout as Lette’s boss and later plastic surgeon, and Corey DiNardo as Lette’s lab assistant and later his would-be lover. Strout is over the top, which is necessary because both of his roles have the play’s least-naturalistic dialogue. DiNardo characters are strikingly different -- lab assistant Karlmann is mousey, with a sort of nearly perceptible rage bubbling right under the surface, while the would-be lover is cooler, more collected.
As the main character, Sean Dillon’s Lette starts off as the straight man, oblivious to everyone else’s revulsion. This character covers a lot of ground during the play, and Dillon pulls it off with aplomb. It’s a hard task to show the audience vulnerability, then such pomp/self-centeredness, and finally self understanding, but Dillon charts a compelling trajectory for this character, and builds to the climax of the piece with care.
Presented on the intimate Open Eye Figure Theater Stage, the minimalist cube set by Sarah Brandner and lighting design by Tony Stoeri, serve two functions: 1) they are easy to configure (which is great for quick scene changes) and 2) they speak to the show’s cultural milieu of engineering, computing and pixelization. Of note is also the projection design, which often play across the cubes. In line with musical cues, the projections are superimposed grids of pixels, which manage to fall somewhere between romantic, musical overture landscapes and basic graphics. Basic and very, very effectively, I couldn’t help but think of this show by Elizabeth Price now on at the Walker. A long tongue indeed.
The Ugly One will get you with its language and general conceit. Playing until the 16th, don’t miss your chance to see this great cast!