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Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Naomi Wright in a scene from "The Ugly One"

James Heaslip

3 out of 4 stars

With the likes of Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty, we thought U.S. writer Neil LaBute had cornered the market on smart plays about society's obsession with physical beauty. But The Ugly One by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg proves no less astute in its wicked satire of skin-deep values.

Mayenburg's 2007 play, getting a welcome Toronto premiere from Theatre Smash, concerns one Lette (David Jansen), an industrial inventor whose career is being held back by his unfortunate looks. When a pretty-boy inferior (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) is assigned to replace him at an important sales conference, Lette's boss (Hardee T. Lineham) finally has to tell him the truth: His face is hideous.

Back home, Lette's wife (Naomi Wright) – who married him for his inner beauty – confirms it. Visage-wise, he's a disaster. In despair, Lette turns to a plastic surgeon (Lineham again) who, when not averting his eyes in horror, sees Lette's revolting mug as a magnificent challenge – an opportunity to rebuild from scratch.

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There follows a hilarious surgery scene, a wildly extreme makeover replete with horror-movie sound effects. But when the patient strips away his bandages, ugly Hephaestus has been transformed into gorgeous Narcissus. Soon Lette is enjoying the benefits of superficial beauty. His boss favours him, women throw themselves at him and his once-tepid wife suddenly wants to jump his bones.

Humble Lette, meanwhile, begins to acquire Narcissus's vanity to go with his face. He grows arrogant, lazy and overconfident, brazenly taking lovers and boasting about it to his wife – secure in the knowledge that he's so irresistible she'll never leave him.

But then, in a twist of the scalpel, Lette's surgeon begins to capitalize on his success by reproducing his patient's perfect face on other men.

By that point, Mayenburg's comedy has already gone beyond social satire to pose questions about how much our personalities are shaped by our physical attributes. And it then plunges into some murky musings about identity before taking the Narcissus leitmotif to its logical conclusion.

Like Mayenburg's writing (translated into English by Maja Zade), Ashlie Corcoran's production is brisk and often very funny. And her cast is excellent. Jansen – whose own bland face is a tabula rasa for our imaginations – gives an effective performance as the ill-favoured Lette and later as the cocky glamour boy. When he slouches about insouciantly in dark glasses he looks like Russell Crowe at a TIFF press conference.

Lineham, that rough diamond of an actor, is gruffly evasive as the boss and comically twitchy as the surgeon. Wright and Dwyre also do witty double duty as, respectively, a septuagenarian sex addict and her gay son, both of whom want a piece of the handsome Lette. Corcoran's snappy pacing often requires the actors to change characters abruptly in mid-scene, signalled only by a shift in Jason Hand's lighting.

If there's a drawback, it's in the overall design concept. The Tarragon's black-box Extra Space has been reconfigured as an alley stage (think Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre), with the audience on either side. Apparently, we're meant to look across and see our fellow theatregoers, bringing an added dimension to the play's theme of outward appearance.

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That's all well and good, but then set designer Camellia Koo has filled the alley with an awkward elevated platform that serves as, among other things, a boardroom table, an operating table, a bed and a stage. Corcoran's blocking has her actors either pacing around it or clambering onto it, so that it becomes more of an obstacle than an asset.

But staging aside, the show does a beautiful job of examining some ugly truths. And it also makes you wonder if being able to easily replicate physical perfection might not be a good thing. Then maybe we'd care less about surface allure and more about other attractive traits, like compassion or honesty.

The Ugly One runs until Oct. 16.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Ugly One

  • Written by Marius von Mayenburg
  • Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
  • Starring Jesse Aaron Dwyre, David Jansen, Hardee T. Lineham and Naomi Wright
  • A Theatre Smash production
  • At Tarragon Theatre Extra Space in Toronto

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