Rest assured, there’s no need to air any dirty laundry. The current production at Hartford Stage, Steve Martin’s “The Underpants,” is ready to wear, just as fresh and irreverent as it was last fall in its initial engagement at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.
And yes, we are talking about that Steve Martin, the multi-hyphenate actor, comic, novelist, musician, memoirist and playwright. He has indeed brought his slightly off-kilter sense of humor to this adaptation of a German play, “Die Hose,” by Carl Sternheim, a satiric chronicler of the German middle class and their do-anything efforts to move up the social ladder. In this play, however, set in Dusseldorf in the early 20th century, the husband Theo Maske is terrified that his job and social position have been jeopardized by his wife’s wardrobe dysfunction. Her underpants have fallen out from under her long dress just as a parade featuring the King was passing by and Theo is worried about the impact on his government position.
Martin provides a nice and breezy adaptation that obviously reflects more modern sensibilities, whether it be the struggles of women to be independent figures or the vagaries of celebrity, however temporary. In the play, the upwardly mobile Maske’s have a room to rent, and on this day two potential lodgers show up, each inspired by their glimpse of the attractive Louise Maske’s predicament earlier in the day.
There’s the seductive, too smooth Versati and the nebbish Cohen, who decides he must preserve Louise’s dignity at all costs. Encouraging Louise to take matters—and Versati—into her own hands is the upstairs busybody Gertrude who lives life vicariously through her downstairs friend.
Repeating his original Long Wharf direction, that theater’s Artistic Director, Gordon Edelstein, has tightened the play’s action and maintained its momentum. His able cast continues to deliver the top quality performances encountered in New Haven, most notably Jeff McCarthy as the very traditional Theo, used to his position of authority in his marriage and quick to assume all the rights and privileges he believes are due to him as a man. McCarthy’s Theo bellows, pontificates, and bullies, all the while unaware of some of the subtler seductions and plots that are spinning around him. McCarthy is delightful and it is indeed fun to watch this prideful, belligerent character get bested by some of those around him.
Jenny Leone has grown even more impressive as his frustrated bride of one year, Louise. Very quickly we realize that there is a spine beneath her obedient wife, and Leone maintains the fine line between her wifely duties and her character’s desire to spring free. She handles the seduction scenes with the right balance of aloofness and eagerness, conveying Louise’s yearning to be recognized as the full, voluptuous woman that she is, rather than the naïve girl who must be sheltered that her husband seems to see.
Didi Conn is once again an audience pleaser as the outspoken Gertrude, ready to share the most immodest thoughts in her head and anxious to unleash Louise’s heretofore hidden passions. Burke Moses is at his seductive best as the poet Versati, who is aroused both physically and artistically by Louise’s presence, to the point of sacrificing a love-making opportunity for a burst of verse. Steve Routman creates an appropriately sad sack figure as the barber Cohen, who strives with frequent near-misses to disguise his Jewishness from the disdainful Maske. Routman manages to find the humanity and humor within Cohen, which helps to make him a somewhat more lovable character than he was in the Long Wharf production. George Bartenieff is amusing as the perplexed Klingelhoff, an elderly gentleman with an unusual nervous condition who also responds to the Room to Rent sign and unfortunately arrives when the household’s chaos has reached its zenith.
Martin’s adaptation is not strictly a conventional farce and Edelstein, to his credit, makes no attempt to overdo or call untoward attention to the play’s more farcical elements. As one would expect with Martin, the humor is both physical and cerebral, with clever wordplay and subtle nods to a more contemporary 21st century sensibility. There’s a passing reference to Martin’s favorite musical instrument, the banjo, as well as to the original author of the play.
Lee Savage’s original set design fits comfortably on the Hartford Stage’s slightly larger thrust space, depicting a standard middle class apartment in Dusseldorf with an open floor plan accommodating the kitchen, the dining room, a sitting area, and a short staircase leading to the two off-stage bedrooms that play an integral role in the plot. There are also the double-doors which lead from the landing into the apartment, allowing Edelstein to stage two carefully timed entrances that are rewardingly amusing.
Jess Goldstein’s costumes immediately anchor the proceedings in the appropriate time and place, with men’s formal wear and royal uniforms and dresses and skirts for the women that they would wear around their homes or for their errands. He’s also needed to supply a variety of undergarments as nearly all of the characters do find themselves in various states of undress by the end of the play, including one pair of underpants that deserve to be saluted. Robert Wiertzel’s lighting generally washes the apartment in brightness, though he does rather seamlessly create a late evening environment at one point.
But most of all, “The Underpants” is quite funny. Yes, it does make a few social points in a virtually painless manner, but it essentially exists to entertain in a way that can stimulate one’s thinking at the same time.
“The Underpants” runs through February 9. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the theater’s website at www.hartfordstage.org.
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