Theater Spotlight: The Ugly One

Kate Eifrig, Kris L. Nelson, and Luverne Seifert in <i>The Ugly One</i>

Kate Eifrig, Kris L. Nelson, and Luverne Seifert in The Ugly One

at the Guthrie Theater through June 1

In the American premiere of German playwright Marius von Mayenburg's 2007 work The Ugly One (translated by Maja Zade), electronics engineer Lette (Kris L. Nelson) ought to be riding high on the strength of a new invention. About 30 seconds into the opening scene, however, he learns that his gizmo will be presented to the world by his assistant Karlmann (Nathan Christopher). The reason, soon explained to him by his bluntly smug boss, Scheffler (Luverne Seifert), is simple: Lette is inexcusably ugly. "Your face is unacceptable," Scheffler helpfully explains. It's an opinion heartily seconded by Lette's wife, Fanny (Kate Eifrig). It seems Fanny has gotten over her repulsion over the years by focusing her gaze on her husband's left eye. Nelson plays Lette as rather downtrodden and resigned in the early going, though when Lette visits a plastic surgeon (Seifert), a ray of hope emerges in the form of a total, radical, facial reconstruction (a daft surgery scene follows, with Eifrig assisting Seifert as his nurse, with fleshy pounding and squirm-inducing sound effects coming from behind a white sheet. Following the surgery, Lette is irresistibly handsome (Nelson, of course, looks exactly the same throughout, which launches us firmly into the realm of the absurd). Lette falls for the charms of a septuagenarian magnate (Eifrig), then rather callously explains to his wife that he's going to have to sleep with all the women who flock around him because, well, the logic is obvious. To Lette at least. It's remarkable how much dense, dark story gets packed into this one-hour single act (directed by Benjamin McGovern), and before long Lette has sparked a weird trend that possesses its own internal logic. This production matches von Mayenburg trick for trick, with scenes blending into one another and actors skipping from character to character with skewed dream logic. The confusion is off-putting at times, as it is surely meant to be, but it offers the enjoyable experience of laughing for all the wrong reasons. By the time reality breaks down at the end, identity split to shards like broken glass, a perverse sense of satisfaction has been attained. Go ahead, look in that mirror. Just know you might be surprised by who's looking back.