Pants on fire
Inch for inch, underpants cause more mischief than just about any other article of clothing. So it’s no surprise that a pair of skimpy panties is responsible for most of the mischief in Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s farce The Underpants.
It’s 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany, and Theo Maske is a middle-class bureaucrat who loves nothing better than order and appearances. Unfortunately, his lovely wife, Louise, played by Ann Medaille, created a scandal that very morning at a parade, when her underpants inexplicably came loose and fell down around her ankles. Though she handled it with aplomb, it appears that several men saw the incident and can’t get it out of their minds. They now want to rent the Maskes’ spare room in order to get closer to her.
Frank Versati is an impoverished poet and dandy who thrills Louise with seductive words of love. Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish barber, knows that Versati is up to no good and determines to rent the room himself to protect Louise from Versati’s designs. The pragmatic—and greedy—Theo splits the room in half and rents it to both Versati and Cohen, setting the stage for hilarious hijinks.
Louise, bored and resentful of her husband’s scornful mockery and neglect, decides to take Versati as her lover, enlisting their nosy upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Deuter, as her partner in crime. Gertrude is an old maid, but that doesn’t stop her from having lustful fantasies, and she agrees to help. In fact, she decides to sew an even naughtier pair of underpants for Louise’s extramarital fling. The real question is, on whose bedroom floor will the incriminating lingerie end up?
As always, Brüka does a good job creating the proper atmosphere. The set looks convincingly like a quaint German drawing room, from the hutch full of knick-knacks and beer steins to the jaunty polka music that plays between scenes and at intermission (inspiring some energetic foot-stomping and sing-alongs from the audience). The costumes are also well done, though the notorious pair of underpants, when it’s finally revealed in a most unexpected way, seems startlingly frumpy and unsexy to 21st-century eyes.
Bill Ware gives a hilarious performance as the pompous, disdainful Theo, always ready with a sharp remark or withering insult for the never-ending parade of idiocy he perceives before him. Mary Bennett has a small but amusing role as the attention-starved spinster getting her voyeuristic kicks by meddling in others’ lives. Scott Dundas, as Benjamin Cohen, milks his hypochrondriac-nebbish character for consistent laughs.
However, the dowdy, bulky underpants aren’t the only dated part of this production. Sure, some things don’t change, and Sternheim’s skewering of the blinkered existence of the narrow-minded, propriety-obsessed bourgeoisie remains fresh and witty. But other parts, like the awkward Jewish jokes, feel uncomfortably mean-spirited, and probably shouldn’t have made the cut in this modern adaptation. (Sample line: Benjamin, leaving, starts to say, “Shalom,” in farewell, realizes he’s blowing his cover, and quickly turns it into a painfully drawn out “sha-la-la-la” singsong before slinking out the door.)
But for the most part, The Underpants delivers frequent and slightly off-color comedy, poking fun at the delusions and pretensions of the middle class and proving that racy humor—unlike racy lingerie—never goes out of style.