Los Angeles Theater Review: THE UGLY ONE (EST/LA at the Atwater Village Theatre in Glendale)

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by Jason Rohrer on February 16, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


I like a play that vacuums the audience in the wake of its rocket so that we tumble after, happy travelers grateful for the bruises.  We bounce and roll along, too ecstatic to imagine stopping as the play flashes and bangs in our guts, in our faces.  But we can’t keep up for long.  We’re almost glad for our own momentum to cease, so intense is the ride.  We watch this riotous communion move offstage and we wave good-bye, swaying, sore and messy-haired, fumbling back toward life at a human pace.

EVE GORDON and PETER LARNEY in Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles's production of THE UGLY ONEGates McFadden and four actors have made just such an entertainment out of Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 comedy, The Ugly One (Der Hässliche in the original German).  Over 70 breathless minutes, a man (Robert Joy) discovers that he has always been hideously ugly – at work, his better-looking assistant (Peter Larney) gets his perqs, and at home his wife (Eve Gordon) admits she’s never had the heart to tell him she can’t even look at him.  So he gets a surgeon (Tony Pasqualini) to cut him a new face.  The results are a classic be-careful-what-you-ask-for parable, streamlined and explosively linear.  Wisecracks, revelations, and squirm-o-rama circumstances (nose job operations, mother-son makeout sessions) frame awful truths about the morality of identity, the ethics of attraction, and the politics of belonging as a necessary function in commercial viability.  As translated by Maja Zade, the very funny writing is informed by a Black Forest fairy tale sensibility and four hundred years of brooding German philosophy:  Our appetites are the agent of our destruction, and what we want we probably shouldn’t in the first place.  Oh, but that’s what makes our perversions so exhilarating.

TONY PASQUALINI, ROBERT JOY and PETER LARNEY in Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles's production of THE UGLY ONEMcFadden is a rare breed of director with taste, who consistently knows how to use video projections and get the most out of a seemingly empty room (multimedia by Hana Kim, who also designed the slick, dynamic set; lights by Pablo Santiago; sound and music by Joseph Slawinski; costumes by Catherine Baumgardner).  Best of all she has a wonderful sense of what she can do with a piece of writing, and her imagination is matched by her no-prisoners efficiency.  This highly organic and inclusive production had me actually giddy by the turn-off-your-cell-phone announcement, certainly a new experience for me.  The director works her excellent actors to technical precision in timing and physicality, and they more than meet her energy.  They improve on an already thrilling script, which of course is why one hires actors.

TONY PASQUALINI and ROBERT JOY in Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles's production of THE UGLY ONEThree of them play at least two delineated, dead-on characters.  Eve Gordon perfectly understands the pitch of this music; her cheerfully sinister wife had me gasping, but her lecherous old industrialist nearly injured me laughing.  Peter Larney’s assistant is a self-righteous opportunist; his incest survivor is a pandering monkey; somehow he invests both characters with a sad generosity of spirit.  Tony Pasqualini’s characters (the boss and the surgeon) are less differentiated in Mayenburg’s script, but not in the playing: one grossly physical, the other cerebral and cold, both crisply timed and dreadfully intelligent.

Robert Joy anchors this cyclone with an everyman at once manic and reassuring.  His character rides a line between Eros and Thanatos, and this hapless pilgrim has a Bob Newhart quality that makes him simultaneously likable and pathetic, someone you want to slap and cuddle both – very much in tune with a show that seduced me utterly.

TONY PASQUALINI and ROBERT JOY in Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles's production of THE UGLY ONE.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

photos by Kevin Riggin

The Ugly One
Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles
Atwater Village Theatre in Glendale
scheduled to end on March 24, 2014
EXTENDED to March 31, 2014
for tickets, call (323) 644-1929
or visit www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Alice simpson February 16, 2014 at 9:19 am

Will try to see this, based on your review.

Reminds me of the film I saw, and may have been the only person to have seen it, about Liz Taylor attempting to keep her husband from leaving her for, what else? a younger woman, by being completely reconstructed. It was actually the filming of her real-life surgeries. Anyway, he left her anyway, because she was so shallow!
See you at La Salon de Musiques!


Tony Frankel February 16, 2014 at 11:21 pm

I agree with Mr. Rohrer. This is one of the most outstanding theatrical productions I have seen in years. The nuanced and creative acting, and Gates McFadden’s inventive and exhilarating direction, is evidence of what is lacking in most L. A. Theater. In addition, the satisfying and life-affirming belly laughs I had in 70 minutes bettered any of the chuckles that arose from the two acts of “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” at the Taper. Do not miss “The Ugly One.”


Lindsey Ginter February 17, 2014 at 8:08 am

Ditto Mr. Rohrer. What a fantastic, satisfying night in the theatre: Clear, crisp, convincing actions and intentions from all production departments, but especially from the Director and the FABULOUS Actors (never flatting a note). This ironic, humorous SPEIL captured my attention from start to finish. I loved taking the ride. Don’t miss this one.


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