I am convinced that after seeing "The Underpants" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater that Steve Martin, the playwright, comedian, and banjo-playing actor, is nothing short of a genius. As the author of this comedy, which is running through November 10 on the theater's Claire Tow Stage, Martin shows that he is completely capable of incorporating sharp, intelligent dialogue and inspired physical comedy into somewhat tired old genre of farce.
"The Underpants," based on a 1911 German satire called "Die Hose" by Carl Sternheim, is a contemporary take on the situation of the original which found comedy in the Maske family's attempts to maneuver their way to the top of middle class society. While keeping the Maske family front and center, Martin instead mocks sexual stereotypes, ingrained gender expectations and fears of public censure and impropriety. The result is a feast for lovers of intellectual comedy who can simultaneously appreciate the function of pratfalls and slapstick to help drive the point home.
In a season in which Connecticut's regional theaters have been focusing on broad comedy, what with "Room Service" at Westport Country Playhouse, "La Dispute" at Hartford Stage (albeit in repertory with the dark and active "Macbeth"), and "Mrs. Mannerly" at TheaterWorks (one is tempted to also include Yale Rep's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" which somehow turned serious snippets of dialogue into punch lines and bits of stage business into physical comedy), one might think that by now local audiences would have grown immune to humor's charms.
That's not the case here, as Martin's brilliance takes his plot in unexpected directions and introduces characters whose personalities and egos provide delectable contrasts that contribute to genuinely funny situations. Of course, equal credit must also go to director Gordon Edelstein, Long Wharf's Artistic Director, who obviously feels simpatico with Martin and knows just how to translate Martin's vision to the stage. The evening is full of clever visual jokes involving timing, as when different characters seem to enter and leave through a set of double doors nearly simultaneously. This is probably the most overall successful of all of the comedies on current view and certainly the most consistently guffaw-inducing production.
One would expect a play deliberately called "The Underpants" to be a little different and perhaps jarring to a modern audience. The title is merely the first indication that Martin is going to be a bit subversive and atypical in his adaptation, but it certainly is appropriate. For it is a pair of underpants that sets the action in motion, when the young and attractive Louise Maske's accidentally loses hers in her unbridled enthusiasm to get a better look at the German King as he passes by in a parade. Her husband, Theo, however, is appalled by this momentary indiscretion and fears that his reputation and his government job will be jeopardized by his wife's failure to tightly tie the ribbons on her undergarments.
As a result, two quite different men, one an ego-filled lothario and the second a reticent, but obsessed older clerk, follow the couple home in order to rent the room they have available. They each have been overly-stimulated by what they witnessed during the seconds that the pants were down and will now vie for the honor to be closer to Mrs. Maske, who after one year of marriage is still a virgin, out of her husband's contention that they cannot yet afford a child. The two boarders are eventually accommodated in the one single room by Theo Maske who is blinded by their rent payments to suspect anything.
What Martin does, however, is make Louise a more-than-willing participant in her boarders' charades, allowing her to express her open desire for an affair with the charming, dashing Mr. Versati, while plotting to keep the older Mr. Cohen at bay through nefarious means. She's aided and abetted by her upstairs neighbor, the nosy but ebullient Gertrude Deuter, who finds new life in living vicariously through Louise.
Edelstein has assembled a willing cast who have readily thrown themselves, both figuratively and at times literally, into the full spirit of the evening. Jeff McCarthy captures all of Maske's crude behavior and stinginess quite admirably, showing how the householder takes his wife for granted and willingly demeans her for what he perceives as shortcomings. McCarthy humorously demonstrates his character's glee as he gets his tenants to fork over additional rent and is particularly effective as Maske's libido is unexpectedly yet eagerly aroused by a neighbor.
Jenny Leona offers probably the most nuanced performanbce of the evening as the much beleaguered Louise who in her proper naivete strives to be a good servile wife but whose eyes are opened in a multitude of ways by the incident during the parade. As she grows into a more ingenious plotter, Leona charts Louise's growth quite believably that allows the evening to end, whether this is Martin or Edelstein I don't know, on a decidedly feminist twist.
Burke Moses is wonderfully pompous and confident as Louise's enamored suitor, Versati, whose ardor is frequently countered by his desire to incorporate his feelings into one of his poems. Moses and Leona are particularly funny as she swoons over his verbal courtship only to have his door slam in her face as he rushes to his writing desk. Steve Routman is equally inspired as Cohen who tries to hide his Jewishness from Mr. Maske ("you understand I really don't mind" Maske says, checking out Cohen's profile) by spelling his last name with a "k" among other similar jokes. Routman manages to create a totally annoying, constantly coughing nebbish who will stop at nothing to keep the object of his affections from falling to his rival's, Versati's, charms. Moses and Routman also do well with their verbal battles which can result in hand to hand combat on top of the kitchen table.
The tiny Didi Conn proves an audience charmer as she delivers Gertrude's bon mots and sarcastic one liners with an endearing aplomb. Her presence is always welcome as it serves as a delightful catalyst to spurring the action in unexpected directions. Veteran actor George Bartenieff plays the proper octogenarian Klingenhoff, who provides additional amusement when he stumbles onto the premises and is mistaken for being another gentleman besotted by Louise's earlier public display.
Lee Savage has created the marvelous set, which while spacious also conveys the confines and tight quarters of the Maske's apartment. There is a small staircase that leads to the master bedroom and the guest bedroom, while the main floor consists of separate areas for a kitchen, a dining table and a fainting couch. Jess Goldstein has designed authentic-looking period costumes, all the way down to the undergarments of course, including one pair made in the colors of the German flag. Robert Wierzel's lighting assures that the onstage antics are visible at all times, while Charles LaPointe has added some nice touches to the various characters' hair.
This production, which is co-produced by Hartford Stage where it will be remounted in January, is a giddy romp with a brain and a heart, that promises to take the chill out of the air. That Edelstein can sustain such high spirits over the 100-minute duration of this one act play is remarkable, as is Martin's ability to create these psychologically complex characters whose faults and foibles strike many a familiar nerve.
For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit the Long Wharf website at www.longwharf.org.
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