Perchance you're reading this review with eyes in a beautiful face. If you are in that most fortuitous state of affairs, you likely are reaping (have reaped, will reap) the proven economic and personal benefits of an attractive visage. As we plain creatures learn at a very early age, the beauteous are privileged beings.
"The Ugly One," an amusing little 65-minute satire from the German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, is a meditation on those themes. Penned in a sardonic, crisp, minimalist fashion — the tone of director Seth Bockley's clipped and fast-paced production for the Sideshow Theatre Company reminds me a little of Yasmina Reza's "Art" — the story begins with Lette, a corporate type who thinks he's about to give a major presentation on his product at a conference. But he finds himself passed over at the last minute for a less-qualified assistant (the nicely predatory Nate Whelden). Why?
First his boss spits out the truth, then his wife. Lette is just too ugly for the job. Surely he sees this? They have for years.
Part of the joke (if something this painful can be a joke) is that Robert L. Oakes, the solid Sideshow actor playing Lette, is not ugly at all. Just a regular guy. And thus the character takes on a Kafkaesque quality — our dude suddenly finds himself stuck with a new awareness of a crippling deficiency about which he can do nothing and which apparently trumps all his other merits. It's a clever premise, not least because we all well know the basic truth on which it is based, especially if we've ever watched some prettier creature getting something we deserved. And who, dear reader, has not?
This unpleasant news sends Lette off to a kind of drastic plastic surgeon (Fred A. Wellisch). Presto, he's now beautiful! Meanwhile, the actor's face has not changed at all. Yet everyone treats him so much better, including his wife (Nina O'Keefe) who affords far more favors to her beautiful husband that the old ugly model.
Complications ensue from there.
Von Mayenburg's main point — it's not fair to be ugly — is certainly well and amusingly made. Although it is something of a structural soupcon (you can go see this show and then be having a very beautiful dinner with the Hearty Boys restaurant on this block of Broadway in a matter of minutes), "The Ugly One" mostly works because it takes something very obvious and makes you ponder it anew. On Sunday night, it certainly got me fired up about the inequities of life. Heck, I found myself going through various personal junctures, wondering what closed gates would have been opened for me in comparably altered circumstances. The show was doing its job.
The four-person cast (doubling abounds) is quite strong; O'Keefe (the star of Sideshow's terrific "Heddatron") is a superb farceur and the piece bops along quite pleasantly. You do, though, wait in vane for some of the style to fall away, and for actors to dig more deeply, as the more painful revelations ensue. You can see why Bockley chose to keep his world self-contained and slightly impenetrable — it reflects the style of the writing — but the final few minutes of the show need something else, lest "The Ugly One" starts to turn back in on itself.
I found myself wanting more discussion — the show only goes so far — of the matter of who gets to decide who is and is not beautiful, and why those who are pretty may indeed be richer and more powerful, but rarely seem happier.
When: Through Nov. 20
Where: 3809 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Tickets: $15-$20 at 773-809-4782 or sideshowtheatre.org