BWW Reviews: THE UNDERPANTS in Connecticut
Leave it to Steve Martin to take an improbable comedy and turn into something that is still hysterically funny. His play, The Underpants, based on Carl Sternheim's 1910 play, Die Hose, is a farcical fluff is about what happens when a young housewife's underpants fall during a parade. Martin did not update the play, so we're not talking about spicy lingerie. The intimate apparel in question is a pair of cotton bloomers - the kind our great grandmothers wore.
So back to the spectacle. Pompous government bureaucrat Theo Maske (Jeff McCarthy) and his young bride, Louise (Jenny Leona) return from a parade they were watching with the hope of seeing the Kaiser pass by. Louise's her bloomers fell to the ground, and she retrieved them, but not as quickly or discretely as she thought. Theo is thoroughly convinced he is going to lose his job because of this scandal. "All from a pair of underpants," says Louise. "Don't underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie," he replies.
He's right about that. Since the brief incident, no fewer than three men come to their house on the pretext of renting the room they advertise for sale. The first is Frank Versait (Burke Moses), a poet who is as full of himself as her husband is. He needs a room during the day so he can write. The next is the nebbish and neurotic barber Benjamin Cohen (Steve Routman), who claims he needs a room for privacy. Later, the starchy and surly scientist Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff) inquires about renting the room, and then the Kaiser announces that he, too, needs a room to work in during the day. Oh, sure. Except for Klinglehoff, they are all dying to seduce Frau Maske, and the Maskes' nosy sex-starved upstairs neighbor (aka "The mouth who lives upstairs"), Gertrude (Didi Conn) encourages her to be active.
There are funny lines and double entendres that bounce through the play as if they were helium balloons. When Cohen tells Maske he doesn't smoke, Maske replies "No wonder you're so puny. Cigars strengthen the body." Later Gertrude tells Louise, "I just came from the comedy. A play by Sternheim. Very funny." Louise asks if she should see it. "Wait till it's adapted," advises Gertrude.
Maske is oblivious to the attention his wife is getting from Versait, Cohen and the King because all he sees is an inflated image of himself. The only thing that is worth analyzing is that her would-be lovers are variations of her husband - afflicted with illusions of grandeur and a need to have her slavishly devoted to them. Under the deft direction of Gordon Edelstein and the superb performances, it's easy for the audience to take it all at face value. Both McCarthy and Moses are likeable despite their characters' colossal egos. (Moses also plays the Kaiser.) LeOna Plays Frau Maske with a believable innocence. Routman is sidesplitting as the Woody Allen-type barber who tries in vain to get the girl, especially after he is drugged. Conn is amusing as the neighbor who lives vicariously through the young hausfrau. Bartenieff is properly grim as Klinglehoff.
Edelstein saves the best for last when the actors take their bows by romping around in underpants. Even the dour Klingelhoff is hilarious. Lee Savage's set design and Jess Goldstein's costumes captured the era perfectly. This new version of The Underpants runs 95 minutes with no intermission. It plays through November 10 at the Long Wharf Theatre and will move to the Hartford Stage, which co-produced the show for a second run with the same cast, January 9 through February 9. For tickets, call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org now or later at 860-527-5151. www.hartfordstage.org