Review: ‘The Ugly One’ at Nu Sass Productions

The gutsy woman-centric theater company Nu Sass is notable for producing works that feature women in major roles, onstage and off, typically in a tiny second-floor space on F Street that seats only 30 and feels a lot like a living room. In both substance and setting, Nu Sass creates up-close experiences that audiences cannot help but be drawn into, on themes that importantly intersect women’s lives.

Now, in a witty and gritty twist, Nu Sass has picked a play that speaks dead seriously to women’s lives but tells a story that’s about a man and played for laughs. It’s a farce called The Ugly One, an incisive satire that cuts comedically into our appearance-obsessed culture and the stigma of being unattractive.

Promotional graphic for Nu Sass’s production of The Ugly One.

The Ugly One is by a man, Marius von Mayenburg, a playwright renowned in Germany. And it’s about a man, an electronics inventor named Lette (Gary DeBreuil) who has a very ugly face. The running jokes about how ugly he is are brutal—his boss Scheffler (Aubri O’Connor), his wife Fanny (Moriah Whiteman), and his coworker Karlmann (David Johnson) do not hold back, and with each new phrase they use to say he’s ugly, the audience howls. (The same jokes told about a woman character would be cringe-worthy. There’s no way this role could be gender-switched.)

Arguably prejudicial appearance standards impact #MenToo. But it is women who bear the brunt—to an extent that’s not funny. Which is why the Nu Sass production of The Ugly One is so savvy, satisfying, and subversive. The story is a harsh yet farcical send-up of “looksism” and how it can denigrate one in the eyes of others and degrade one’s own sense of self. One’s looks are implicated in one’s very identity and individuality, and that’s a painful truth, readily recognizable by anyone who’s never felt good-looking. But seen through von Mayenburg’s absurdist lens, a double standard gets flipped to uplifting delight.

Lette decides to have plastic surgery at the hands of a very Germanic doctor (O’Connor again). After the bandages are removed, the operation is such a success he becomes an instant sex object, lusted after not only by Franny his wife but also by a wealthy older woman (Whiteman again), her gay son (Johnson again), and dozens of offstage women with whom he now has affairs. So desirable does Lette become that other men go under the knife just to look like him. Soon the face Lette sees in the mirror he now sees everywhere. Even the gay son gets the operation to look like the man he’s hot for, which leads to a comically metaphysical payoff at the end that is as gut-busting as it is mind-blowing.

Gary DeBreuil as Lette in The Ugly One. Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.

The acting style is wonderfully broad, and DeBreuil in particular brings to the role of Lette an antic physicality and facial plasticity that keeps getting funnier. The scenes shift from one to another quick as a wink, and Director Renana Fox keeps the action moving at such a clip the show flies by. Set Designers M. Bear and Joe Largess deftly turn tight quarters into multiple locations—an office, a living room, an operating room—and Lighting Designer E-hui Woo with but a handful of instruments shifts scenes with clarity and ease. The Ugly One, translated from German into British English by Maja Zade, has been Americanized by Nu Sass so seamlessly the play seems written here now.

A perfect fit for Nu Sass’s female-driven mission, The Ugly One is a dark drama about women tricked out as a light, brisk allegorical farce about men—and face it that’s a formula for sure-fire fun.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Ugly One plays through December 17, 2017, at Nu Sass Productions performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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