Satire gives way to laughs in ‘The Underpants’
In a small German apartment in the 1920s, Louise Maske is getting a scolding from her husband, Theo, for the crime of having her panties drop to the ground during a parade for the king. While Theo is disturbed out of all proportion by the thought that his job as a bureaucrat has thus been threatened, several other male witnesses have the opposite, but equally extreme reaction of lust for Louise. Meanwhile, Gertrude, the nosy, naughty neighbor who lives upstairs, goads Louise into taking advantage of this turn of events.
There, I have fulfilled my duty in laying out the plotline of “The Underpants,” a 1910 play by German Carl Sternheim that has been adopted by Steve Martin. Now on to the heart of Theatre Aspen’s version of “The Underpants,” which plays at the Theatre Aspen tent through Aug. 27.
It’s the characters. Anything ” a pair of dirty socks, say ” could have set the story in motion. What matters in “The Underpants,” directed by Theatre Aspen’s artistic director David McClendon, is that these characters are sharply drawn for comic effect, and more so, that they collide in an explosion of farce.
The recipient of the most laughs is the meek, sickly barber Cohen. Cohen is attracted to Louise but, insecure about his own libido, claims that it is jealousy, and a desire to protect, that has brought him to Maske’s doorstep. The gifted Neil David Seibel plays Cohen to maximum effect, right down to his cartoonishly high voice and his repeated insistence that it’s “Cohen ” with a ‘K,'” ” which raises the serious subtext of German anti-Semitism.
Both paralleling and opposing Cohen is Versati (Rick Stear), a dandy gentleman poet who professes a massive lust for Louise. Gertrude (Diana Dresser) is the uninhibited neighbor, who sees in Louise’s romantic fortunes a chance to give her own voyeuristic longings a workout. They all get their share of Martin’s wordplay, which ranges in characteristic fashion from low (bathroom and penis one-liners and slamming doors) to sophisticated exchanges. But they are all types we have seen before, and have their limits on how they can surprise us.
The truly transcendent character in “The Underpants” is Theo. Bill Christ looks as if he was born to play the big, lumbering tower of mediocrity and narrow-minded certainty. Theo is also a character that plays right into Martin’s sense of humor. Martin, who has always loved to deflate the pompously sure-of-themselves, has a field day here. Which is why, though one would assume this is Louise’s story, it is Theo who gets the most and best lines. “If I change my mind,” he explains slowly, “I wouldn’t know what to think.” Theo may be the stock German of fiction ” methodical, physical, disdainful of romance. But Martin gives him so much material that he becomes a singular clod, and a perfect vehicle of the self-satisfied male in this farce-battle of the sexes.
Not faring nearly as well is Louise (Gina Virgallito). She’s wiser and more modern than her husband, which makes her far less prone to Martin’s jabs. And with all the flight characters flying in and out of the Maske home, somebody needs to keep their feet aground. That job here falls to Louise.
In its original version, “The Underpants” was a dissection of German society as much as a comedy. Ninety years later and an ocean away, much of the satiric bite falls away. The most serious thing the play has to say regards the changing dynamic of gender relations: The men here are trapped by their presumed explosive sexuality; the women are free to enjoy their more hidden desires.
Sternheim’s satire has largely been gutted. But thanks to Martin, the laughs keep on coming.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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