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Arts and Entertainment Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019 4 months ago

Steve Martin's 'The Underpants' delivers a comic bullet train

A wardrobe malfunction threatens bourgeoisie civilization at The Players Centre for Performing Arts through Oct. 20.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Steve Martin’s “The Underpants” is now playing in a backstage production at The Players Centre. Martin’s wild and crazy play is a cheeky adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s German Expressionist original.

The action unfolds in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1910. As the title implies, the inciting incident involves a pair of underpants. The unmentionables in question belong to Louise (Aden Russell), the wife of Theo (Jim Floyd), a domineering, conformist, macho government clerk. The two were part of a crowd watching a royal parade. Louise climbed on a bench and stood up on her tiptoes to see the King—and her panties promptly plummeted. 

As the play opens, uptight Theo berates his wife for her wardrobe malfunction. The whole town knows! She’s brought shame, ruin and a loss of bourgeoisie respectability! He’s going to lose his job!

Louise dismisses his fears. Relax. Nobody noticed. But she’s wrong. Two men got a good look and went gaga for her. They quickly show up at the apartment, looking for rooms to rent. Frank Versati (Scott Ehrenpreis) is a flamboyant Italian poet who thinks his verses will unlock Louise’s drawers. Benjamin Cohen is a nervous hypochondriac who hides his Jewish identity (“Not Jewish! Cohen with a K!”).

Cohen assumes Louise is a lost cause; he’ll settle for keeping Versati out of her pants. Gertrude (Ronda Hewitt), their nosy upstairs neighbor hears all—and prods Louise to have a fling with either one of them. You discover that penny-pinching Theo imposes celibacy as a cost-saving measure until the couple can afford a baby. Gertrude thinks Louise can afford a little fun right now.

If you’re looking for sharp comic timing, “The Underpants” delivers. Martin’s farce is a comic bullet train. If brevity is the soul of wit, he’s a witty soul indeed. (I’d love to see a side-by-side comparison of his adaptation and Sternheim’s original).

Director Michele Strauss keeps the comedy moving at supersonic speed. The cast individualizes the well-written, quirky characters with great comic performances.

Russell’s Louise is not a sex object, though she doesn’t object to sex. She also digs her 15 minutes of fame. Floyd is hilarious as Theo, Louise’s hardnosed, hectoring health nut of a husband. (His performance reminds me of Kurtwood Smith’s character on “That ’70s Show.”)

Hewitt’s Gertrude is boiling with vicarious lust, and gleefully supplies Louise with lingerie and levelheaded advice. Ehrenpreis’ Versati is his own biggest fan and a bit of a male drama queen. Brin is sidesplitting as Cohen, the imaginary invalid. He gets the audience howling in the scene when Louise slips him a potion that turns his legs to rubber. (Brin’s character cleverly subverts stereotype. Cohen’s a secret Jew in an anti-Semitic society. He’s a bundle of nerves. Who wouldn’t be?) Charles Tyler and Chuck Conlon are also funny in their brief scenes as an aging inventor with Tourette’s syndrome and a creepy King.

Sure, it’s all very funny. But ultimately, “The Underpants” confronts the transgressive objectification of the male gaze. Just kidding.

This is a Steve Martin comedy, folks. Surprise, surprise, there are sexist gags. If you drank a shot for every one, you’d quickly hit the floor.

Yes, Louise’s sexual liberation hints of personal liberation. Written today, the play would underline the feminist subtext with a yellow highlighter. But Martin wrote the script in 2002, so it’s still funny.

That script is a mix of double entendre (“I’ll slip in and out without you knowing.”) and clever period references to Freud, Einstein and the Loch Ness Monster. Think screwball comedy for intellectuals.

But don’t think too hard.

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