"Your face is unacceptable." It's a pretty harsh put-down from boss to employer in Marius von Mayenburg's dark satire The Ugly One. But that is by no means the worst of it. Later the lead character Lette is also told by his wife, no less, that he is 'unspeakably ugly'. Ouch.
There are a lot of one-liners in this play which are guaranteed to make you laugh, and make you feel exceptionally uncomfortable at the same time. Lette is one of the engineers in a big company which makes electronic adaptors (the specific product is deliberately vague – cushioned in horrendous marketing speak). He wants to host the presentation of his invention to potential buyers. But his boss has other ideas, prompting his bleak declaration. It's only at this point in his life when Lette realises that he's so ugly, people find it hard to look at him. His wife has got by because she only looks at one of his eyes, never full in the face. "I love you," she says, "I always admired you for coping so well."
Lette is faced with a conundrum: to progress at his job, he needs to be more pleasing on other people's eyes. And to do that he must face the surgeon's knife.
What happens next is entirely ridiculous, absolutely hilarious and very unnerving. Mayenburg's play pulls you in with its comedy, before assaulting you with its darkness. I'm not going to spoil the surprises, but be prepared for them to nudge right at the edge of your sense of decency. The piece is a sharp, uncompromising take down of capitalism and the need to win against all odds. It also places our obsession with beauty and our definition of beauty, centre stage, posing the thought that human beings' idea of perfection may be one of the most destructive things out there.
Roy Alexander Weise directs this production, for Buckland Theatre Company, which has a raised platform in the middle of the stage, where the characters perform and on which images are projected onto. It becomes the surgeon's table, a boardroom screen and the place where Lette gets to give his talk. The cast move around it and on top of it and while there are some really interesting moments, at times the platform feels a little in the way.
The cast warm up with Mayenburg's sparse, oblique text, but struggle a little to make the drama fly. They get the humour very well – T'Nia Miller as Scheffler is very funny – but occasionally the darkness doesn't quite land. The play offers up several tricky staging issues which are both easily navigated and slightly struggled with. A surgery scene – all the rips, squelches and tears – is brilliantly re-created by pulling fruit apart under a microphone. But the moments where the cast swap quickly from one role to the next in the middle of a scene aren't quite clear cut enough.
Still, it's an entertaining, disarming night at the theatre, riven through with pertinent, uncomfortable jolts which ask us all to take a good, hard, long look in the mirror.