Alfredo Narciso (left) and Lisa Joyce / Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Early on in Soho Rep's production of German playwright Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One, I worried that we were sitting through a simple polemic against the baseness of surface beauty—a sort of Shallow Hal for the erudite. Instead, it was a witty, fascinating study of self-esteem industry and the various castes of self-absorption that saturate our society.
It starts with Lette, our titular protagonist, who we are supposed to believe is a repellantly ugly guy, despite being played by the attractive Alfredo Narciso. Somehow he's gone through life without knowing this basic "truth" and managing to land a pretty wife (Lisa Joyce) and have a successful career. The revelation—first from his boss (Andrew Garman), then from his wife—that he's grossly ugly is both comic and heartbreaking. But the "lesson" about human superficiality isn't the intriguing part. It's Lette's transformation. After miraculous plastic surgery that results in him having a gorgeous mug that stops people in their tracks, Lette evolves into an egotist, then solipsist, and finally into a full-blown narcissist.
The fact that most people conflate these three as one is a shame, and the way Mayenburg has manipulated the characters into sussing out the particularities is jaw-droppingly refreshing. The other three actors in the cast play a panoply of characaters, which effectively captures the way most people don't really pay attention to the finer details of personalities. It also sets up the final scene, the ultimate narcissistic (and gay) moment that seals the deal on the fact that an entire generation of people have been taught to just love themselves—no matter what you call it.
Through Feb. 26 at Soho Rep (co-produced by The Play Company), 46 Walker St., 866-811-4111, sohorep.org. Running time: 1 hour.