The Florida Studio Theatre's latest play has already caused a stir in our household. My husband has delighted in telling everyone he's "checking out The Underpants.'" This is just the double entendre the play is going for as a young German woman, Louise Maske, experiences a moment of glory when her bloomers drop unexpectedly (or so we think) while Louise strains to catch a glimpse of the king at his parade."Wild and crazy guy" Steve Martin wrote the adaptation from Die Hose, a 1910 farce by German playwright Carl Sternheim. The comic play is surprisingly racy and bawdy for its time. You can imagine Martin delighting in all the quick comic gestures, such as Louise's preparation of large weiners for her husband, Theo, which she promptly burns; and her neighbor Gertrude's dismay when Theo declares he has a "little surprise" waiting for her in the bedroom.
The play opens after the incident driving the entire plot has already taken place. Theo, a government bureaucrat who prides himself on his ability to blend in, is afraid he will lose his job and financial security in the wake of his wife's inability to keep her panties on. For her part, Louise thinks he drastically overestimates the importance of what has happened and tries to steady his nerves. And yet, losing her panties in public is a bigger to-do than she realizes. This small act has captured the imagination of nosy Gertrude, who wants to live vicariously through Louise, and two young men: Cohen, who tries to pass himself as not Jewish, and Versati, a gentleman poet who becomes besotted with Louise. The two men compete for the chance to rent a room in the Maske household, both desiring to live under the same roof as the lovely temptress.
At one point Louise awaits a potential lover and begins shedding layers upon layers of undergarments, and we realize why the fact that she dropped her underpants in public caused so much fuss. This buttoned-up group of characters is unleashed by the small bit of ribbon that held Louise's undergarments in place. It's quite fanciful indeed to see so much activity swirl around a seemingly innocent moment and the possibility of seeing a bit of flesh.
The actors are all extremely skilled and have pitch-perfect comic timing, but for me this was Theo's world and everyone else was just visiting. A precursor to bloviators Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson, Theo was played with a fantastic level of bombast by Gil Brady, who owned the stage in every scene in which he appeared. For a man who claimed he wanted to blend in, he puffed out his chest and stomped around the couple's small home to take up as much space on earth as possible. He delivered every cutting remark to his wife with a tongue-in-cheek air that made him hard to dislike. The level of misogyny was sometimes difficult to stomach, but Brady did his best to give a measure of heart to Theo. Jennifer Joan Thompson was lovely and sympathetic in the role of Louise, but I would have enjoyed seeing her become a more powerful rival to Theo in the second act."The Underpants" is hilarious and witty; but at the end, I was left wondering whether there was more to the story. Might there have been a coda where we got to see Louise truly blossom into a modern woman? Could Martin, who became a first-time dad to a daughter at the age of 67, revisit Louise and give her a more triumphant existence? Little-known fact: Martin supposedly named his newborn daughter Conquistador---so perhaps there is hope for a more feminist interpretation of the play yet.
This play is sure to help keep things light and easy during the relaxed summer season in Sarasota. The Underpants has been extended through August 3 at Florida Studio Theatre. Call (941) 366-9017 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org for tickets and details about the production.