You would have to be quite the hermit to be missing the current cultural moment of the horrifying and sometimes violent interactions between bodies, sex, and power. With news full of the empowered brought down by abuses they have committed and feeds full of #MeToo’s, #IHave’s, #MenToo’s, and #BelieveWomen’s, Nu Sass’s DC premiere of the one act meditation on beauty and power, The Ugly One, grabs attention as a prescient play on the consequences of that dangerous chemistry.
The story follows an engineering product developer named Lette, who, despite the evidence of the audience’s eyes, is considered so horribly ugly that it is damaging his career. After undergoing complete facial reconstructive surgery, he and those around him find out that there is such a thing as being too beautiful. Lette goes from unloved to overloved and back to unloved again as he leaves his productive life and caring wife behind to pursue all the opportunities his new face gives him, but winds up being defined so much by that face that he loses who he is.
Lette is given life by Gary DuBreuil, a relative newcomer to DC stages. If, by the description, you expected some Elephant Man level makeup or War Horse puppetry, expect differently because director Renana Fox chooses a challenging, but worthwhile route of relying on the actor’s physical skills to convey total plastic surgery. DuBreuil takes on embodying immense physical changes with only the aid of a pair of glasses.
The Ugly One
closes December 17, 2017
Details and tickets
This first task is absolutely Herculean, and his solution is to bring a false-faced foolishness borrowed from classic comedy that adds funny zip to the play (and, yes, since it is relevant to the play and I know you are wondering, he is a very handsome fellow).
Comedy is a solution to the challenges of this play that pervades the cast. Moriah Whiteman finds many fun bits as Lette’s wife and also as his sexually harassing patron. David Johnson charmingly goofs around as Lette’s coworker and eventual replacement, as well as the definitely not-gay-but-totally-gay son of Lette’s patron. Aubri O’Connor as Lette’s cosmetic surgeon and as his boss shows off the power dynamics of beauty, playing subtly with the difference between her statuesque physique and DuBreuil’s diminution. There’s plenty in the play to snort about, including but not limited to Lette’s vaulting arrogance after his surgery and the delightfully cringey sex comedy between Whiteman and Johnson as mother and son.
But there is another side to the play: a darkness prevalent in the gruesome alteration and powerlessness in the face of caring more for bodies than who they contain. While Nu Sass’ production nails the comedy inherent in this script, the tragedy of beauty and the self-inflicted suffering are more absent. Partly this lack comes from the comedy occulting the tragedy rather than heightening it, but that absence also derives from the stunningly monumental task assigned to DuBreuil: to show two radically different impressions of the same character using only his body. He doesn’t achieve this dichotomy, though, to be fair, I could count on one hand the number of DC actors who I expect might be able to execute this role. That lack of distinction deals a body blow to the emotional honesty of The Ugly One and causes confusion and dragging in the last half of the play, made more distinct by the success of the comedy of the first half.
Other disappointments come more from what’s missing than what is there on stage. Director Fox has created, in the words of Chuck Mee, “a bizarre, artificial world of all intact White people” in a play that could use the inversion of those tropes to accent the harshness of the world to the bodies it judges Other. The Ugly One provided a powerful opportunity to explore what it means to have people of color in this show or the disabled or non-binary people or even simply people with atypical bodies, but that opportunity was missed. The play needs some kind of cultural fuel to feed its fire and make it a tragicomedy, but it winds up simply as a comedy.
Which is not to dump on comedy or on The Ugly One, since comedy (and this play) can be a fantastic jumping off point for us to more deeply explore this purgative cultural moment we are living in. This production aims at delivering some loud laughs and a dramatic conversation at the bar afterwards, and The Ugly One nails the mark on that score.
The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg. Directed by Renana Fox. Featuring Aubri O’Connor, Gary DeBreuil, David Johnson, and Moriah Whiteman. Set Design by M. Bear and Joe Largess. Sound Design by Shane Solo. Light Design by E-hui Woo. Stage Management by Charles Lasky. Produced by Nu Sass. Reviewed by Alan Katz.