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Review: ‘The Ugly One’ at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival

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I thumbnailed Marius von Mayenburg’s comedy The Ugly One for a colleague. (The play opened the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival Thursday at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre.)

“It’s like a Saturday Night Live sketch about plastic surgery. It goes on longer than a typical sketch might, but it has more to say than just re-stating a single premise until it’s exhausted. It’s a very deft little play.”

Riiiiight,” came the reply. “So it’s absolutely not like an SNL sketch.”

OK. My point actually was that The Ugly One is not a full-bore absurdist comedy, which is what it’s been repeatedly labelled. It really is more like a very sharp SNL sketch. It’s a piece of quick, bright, social satire built around a theatrical paradox. It has easy-outlined characters, nothing profound or rich, but there are enough twists and smarts to keep this parable about beauty-being-only-skin-deep-but-its-effects-are-transformative from seeming pat or simple.

Lette (Montgomery Sutton) is an engineer, the inventor of a new plug, who is surprised when his boss (Ted Wold) delegates his assistant the job of pitching the new plug at an industry convention. With great reluctance, the boss explains: Lette is simply too ugly to be the company’s ‘marketing face.’

Lette is shocked, no one’s ever told him he didn’t look good. His wife (Natalie Young) confesses she basically got over it — she doesn’t look at him directly and believes he’s really a lovely person. So Lette heads to a plastic surgeon (Wold, again), who transforms his face.

What immediately follows is predictable enough: Everyone suddenly sees Lette in a new and much more attractive light. But Mayenburg has already complicated the obvious equation between beauty and success with a simple device, one that only theater could provide: Sutton, the actor, doesn’t change. He’s a clean-cut, good-looking young man at the start, and post-op, he’s exactly the same. But everyone responds differently:  his happy boss,  his now-hot wife and the older female client (Young, again) who wants to bed him.

Conveniently labeling a performer one thing, then another — old or young, ugly or handsome — demonstrates how insubstantial such labels are. That’s especially so if the performer doesn’t change; it’s not a real indicator of identity. We’re all aware that power, fame and success make ordinary people more attractive. (The old joke about a short, unattractive, rich man: “He’s much taller sitting on his wallet.”) And the reverse holds true: Studies show we grant pretty people more brains, more appealing moral qualities than they actually have. An entire episode of 30 Rock was devoted to Tina Fey’s boyfriend, Drew (Jon Hamm), who enjoys a happy ‘bubble’ of existence, not realizing that everyone was giving him things, cutting him slack, letting him succeed, simply because he was so handsome.

The ‘Hollywood Effect’ rules here, too. But Lette wasn’t born this way, so he’s initially suspicious of that bubble and what his newfound good looks bring him. All of this is not about him, the real him, it’s not earned because he hasn’t changed. So all these people fawning on him are just shallow.

But once the benefits start rolling in — the two dozen women lining up to ‘talk’ with him at conventions, the financial rewards his plastic surgeon gives him for touring and showcasing  the doctor’s ‘miracle cure’ — Lette changes as well.

Many critics have noted the play’s playful conundrums about identity and beauty, the send-ups of success and shallowness. But I haven’t read one that recognizes Mayenburg’s basic economic analysis, the supply-and-demand that powers the play’s narrative. Lette is only convinced he should profit from his good looks when that older client explains that beauty is a rare commodity. It’s in short supply. But, she argues, Lette has been letting his looks waste, hording them. Lette promptly turns around to tell his wife that his looks should not be confined to her. He needs to share them with all those women in line.

But once his doctor starts cashing in on Lette’s looks as well, the market essentially gets flooded with duplicate Lettes. So Lette’s good lucks lose their value. It’s a very simple but ingenious demonstration of one objection to cosmetic surgery’s treatment of humans as merchandise, as product lines. Beauty is being bought, it’s not a measure of anything but our pocketbooks. And if large numbers of us are lipo’d and tucked into a trim and youthful glow, then real beauty begins to lose some luster and some market value.

That day won’t arrive any time soon, of course. So until then, you’re advised to enjoy The Ugly One. The London and New York productions were hailed for their elegant and striking productions. Director Terry Martin has devised, instead, a bare-bones but crisp, studio-theater staging, which doesn’t detract a whit from the play. As I said, The Ugly One plays like a parable or a metaphysical paradox. It doesn’t need much but some swift, sure direction.

And some excellent actors. As Lette, Montgomery Sutton’s only weakness comes at the end, when Mayenburg tries to give some depth to the character through a nervous breakdown. It’s not convincing. Lette exists almost as an integer in an equation, less a fully realized human. But otherwise, Sutton has what the role requires — not just good lucks but an earnestness that curdles.

Ted Wold doesn’t change enough between boss and surgeon — they both have basically the same flighty, comic mannerisms. But Natalie Young continues to astonish, switching with ease from the heavyweight, bare-my-soul dramatics of Second Thought Theater’s Red Light Winter to these snapshot, comic caricatures, the bright-eyed but vapid wife and the lecherous cougar. Jeff Swearingen is equally accomplished with the character shifts, making the assistant a perfectly plausible shlub while his cougar’s son is a sniveling cartoon like something Mike Meyers might devise.

That is, back in Mike Meyers’ creative heyday. Back with SNL.