Actor Alfredo Narciso is a winsome gentleman, but in Marius von Mayenburg's dark comedyThe Ugly One he's magically transformed into Lette, an "unspeakably" repellent engineer with a face so hideous that his wife will only make eye contact with one of his eyes. Lette's grotesque appearance is not accomplished with make-up or masks, but simply with the way others perceive him. The play begins with Lette's discovery that his assistant Karlmann has been chosen to present Lette's new electrical plug at a high-profile convention. Lette had always assumed that he would be the one to introduce his baby to the world, but when he confronts the boss about it, he's rudely awakened. "Your face is unacceptable," Sheffler reluctantly explains.

Lette is shocked to suddenly learn what everyone else knows, but the revelation is only the beginning of von Mayenburg's increasingly absurd yet somehow logical tale, which takes society's superficial obsessions to increasingly ludicrous levels. Having seen himself for the first time as other see him, Lette immediately visits a plastic surgeon to undergo a complete facial reconstruction. "Will my wife recognize me?" a worried Lette asks the surgeon. "Let's hope not," he answers. The risky surgery is a huge success, and when the gauze is unwrapped Lette has gone from monstrous to marvelous. Of course, to the audience, his face looks exactly the same, and one of The Ugly One's delights is noticing how your impression of Lette subtly changes based on how the other actors perceive him. In an interview with the Times, von Mayenburg said, "One of the things I was playing with was this magic trick of the theater, where you say, ‘This is the king,’ and the actor onstage becomes the king. If you say, ‘He’s not the king anymore,’ he’s not the king."

The surgery is such a sensational success that even perfectly normal-looking people rush to the surgeon to get it done, and wind up with the "Lette" look: a face that's indistinguishable from his (because that's the only face the surgeon knows how to make). This, naturally, creates a whole new set of problems for Lette, who, in the space of an hour, goes from pariah to stud to just another face in an identically handsome crowd. This "crowd" of characters is brought to life by just three other actors: Andrew Garman, who plays Lette's boss and the surgeon; Lisa Joyce, who portrays his wife and an elderly yet lusty aristocrat; and Steven Boyer, who shines with taut menace as Lette's treacherous assistant Karlmann and the aristocrat's doting son. ("I have a dominant mother, so people think I'm homosexual," he tells Lette by way of introduction.) The cast is uniformly excellent.

The Ugly One owes an obvious debt to the elusive horrors inflicted upon individuals in the works of Franz Kafka, particularly The Metamorphosis and The Trial, which was adapted into a criminally underrated film by Orson Welles. Lette is every bit the haunted everyman one finds in Kafka, but The Ugly One feels likes a fresh addition to the genre. Ingeniously staged at SoHo Rep by the company's former artistic director Daniel Aukin, the audience is pitted on opposite sides of the playing space, seated in five steep rows on each side, with the narrow stage in the middle. This intimate arena, brightly lit at first, presents each spectator with a mirror image of him or herself, sitting across the room at eye level. Even after the lights dim, it's impossible to completely lose awareness of the faces of the people across the way, and their presence makes The Ugly One's ideas about self-consciousness and perception inescapably palpable.