Gig Clarke and Eden Falk in The Ugly One | Griffin Theatre

I’m either the odd one out, or the only one in-step. What’s with the current obsession with German playwrights in this and other towns? I’ve lost count of how many plays from that nation’s writers I’ve seen this year, alone.

And now, another: this time, from Marius Von Mayenburg. The Ugly One, seen in other capitals, makes its Sydney debut under the auspices of Arts Radar and directed by Sarah Giles. Giles heads a very distinguished team that seems somewhat wasted on what is an overrated play.

Yeah, it makes a serious point about our obsession with skin-deep beauty. And yeah, it’s funny, especially Gig Clarke’s live, on-mike sfx during the scene in which Jo Turner, as a plastic surgeon, is reconstructing ‘the ugly one’s’ face, from scratch. And Von Mayenburg has a knack for getting straight to it: as the play opens, we’re already getting the picture. Eden Falk (who recently distinguished himself for the Sydney Theatre Company in Who’s The Best) is Lette, an inventive genius who’s developed a new kind of plug that sells itself. Nonetheless, he’s scheduled to launch it at a seminar at an alpine retreat until Turner, in another role, as Lette’s boss, realises Lette’s dogsbody assistant, Karlmann (Clarke) must supplant Lette, as Lette is hideously ugly.

Silly, yeah. And though the style of humour has been compared to Mel Brooks, the comparison only really survives on paper: I was not amused in the same way or to anything like that extent. Von Mayenburg doesn’t have the same facility for unexpected, trivial twists that turn the silly into the truly funny. As in, by way of analagous example, a recurring argument over the pronunciation of the name Frankenstein, which pits American against European vernacular.

So, while I found myself smiling, laughter was harder to come by, despite trickles and peels all around which struck me, it has to be said, as the kind of me-too, ‘I get it’ pronouncements one gets in theatres and cinemas everywhere, not least on opening night. In other words, laughter by contagion, not so much as a result of outrageously successful comedy.

This is in no way to say cast and crew don’t give it their all. All the actors are exceptionally efficacious, with Jacinta Acevski a standout in her multiple roles, especially as a 73-year-old, facelifted cougar. Another trick of the script, apparently, is not only to have a small ensemble of actors playing a variety of roles, but to have them switch from character to character from moment to moment, in a series of lightning scene changes. This is certainly compelling, injects boundless kinetic energy and presents a daring challenge for the performers; seeing them take the risk and plunge is exciting.

Despite the fact he’s contributed some spot-on production design of late (The Dark Room and Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll spring readily to mind), a bank of seats ‘stolen’ from the tiers of the tiny Stables theatre in which we sat, as the centre for all the action, seemed like the production design you have when you don’t have production design. Sure, the idea was probably to demolish the fourth wall, a la Berlin, and make the division between audience and play (and thus, reality and unreality) non-existent, but this is the kind of ineffectual intellectual approach that smacks of high cultural pretensions this play has no truck with. Creatively, it just doesn’t reach that plane.

In particular, it leans towards that fashionable, repetitive, overlapping, slowly evolving dialogue which is unnatural and tedious, and which always gives me the sense it’s a substitution for wit and real ideas: there we sit, caught-up in the playwright’s caffeine-fuelled impatience, as he struggles and strives to take his play to the next plot point.

In short? A very gifted and committed cast and director who’d be well-served, individually and collectively, to invest their talents in a better play. Aren’t there enough energetic, visceral Australian writers to go around? Can’t we give the bright young thing, rising star German clique a rest? Why do we have to keep jumping on European bandwagons? Isn’t it just a renewal of the dreaded cultural cringe?

These and other questions.

The details: The Ugly One plays the SBW Stables Theatre until December 17. Tickets on the Griffin website.