Droppin' drawers: The Underpants is an airy, salacious comedy
Watching the king on parade, Louise Maske reached up to get a better view and accidentally dropped her drawers. As The Underpants opens, her husband, Theo, a stuffy conventional German bureaucrat, is deeply worried. He fears the incident will lose him both his job and his reputation. But what he should be fearing to lose is Louise, with whom he hasn't had sex in a year because, he explains, they can't yet afford a child. Not to worry. As it turns out, Louise's wardrobe malfunction is a boon for both parsimonious Theo and sex-starved Louise: Two men who glimpsed her forbidden flesh soon turn up wanting to rent a room. One is Versati, an Italian poet, the other the sickly hypochondriac Cohen. Meanwhile, neighbor Gertrude is sniffing around, encouraging Louise to embark on the kinds of sensual adventures she herself never had.
The Underpants was penned by Carl Sternheim in 1910 Germany, the first of a cycle of plays satirizing the bourgeoisie. The script has been updated and depoliticized by writer-comic Steve Martin, though just a little of the flavor of Sternheim's Germany bleeds through — in Theo's rigid habits, in Cohen's comic attempts to hide his Jewishness (it's Cohen with a K, he keeps insisting). The prevalent mood of this airy, zany, delightfully salacious little comedy, however, is provided by Martin's nimble wit.
For this production, Miners Alley does a lot of things right, beginning with Richard Pegg's set, lively and cartoony in shades of red and blue, yet still managing to suggest the unpretentious dwelling of a turn-of-the-century German clerk. There's a lot of improvisation and shtick having to do with clothing being donned and doffed, straying hands, and props like sausages and whipped cream — and much of it is pretty funny. Haley Johnson is close to perfect as Louise. She might look like a solid middle-class hausfrau, but there's a wicked little nymphet inside trying to get out, and her expressions as she balances the obedient conventionality of the former against the insistent demands of the latter are something to savor. Johnson is well matched by John Greene's strongly self-satisfied Theo.
The problems begin with the entrance of Cohen, played by Christian Mast. All the acting is done in broad, farcical strokes, but Mast has gone much further, creating a character that's barely human, a mass of irritating tricks and tics. This Cohen walks with an exaggerated hunch, his feet performing a constant tiny, tapping shuffle. Perhaps the character is meant to yell frequently and meaninglessly as written, but non-stop yelling — interspersed with the occasional loud whine — is very hard to take for long, and also overwhelms the clever dialogue. I don't know if director Rick Bernstein encouraged this approach or was unable to prevent it, but unfortunately, it proved infectious. As the evening wears on, other characters — Paige Lynn Larson's Gertrude, Chris Bleau's Versati and Dell Domnik's Herr Klinglehoff — become ever louder, larger, more unfocused and more manic. Accents lose their bearing and slide all over the continent, from Germany to France, Italy to Slovakia, and by the end even Johnson, who starts off so solidly grounded in the role of Louise, comes close to succumbing.
Surrounded by this gesticulating cavalcade, Theo is unexpectedly restful; on some level, his thick ignorance is believable. Or maybe it's just that he has some of the best lines. "I can't change my mind," he says at one point. "I'd have nothing to think." And when, during an argument, Versati states that "I was referencing Freud," Theo responds with all the imbecilic self-satisfaction of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, who insisted that when he used a word, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"I," replies Herr Maske, "am referencing me."
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