THE UNDERPANTS -- A Revealing Comedy at Long Wharf
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
We are crying for joy because “The Underpants,” based on a 1911 satire by Carl Sternheim, opens Long Wharf Theatre’s new season on a very brilliant note. That “Wild and Crazy Guy,” multi-talented Steve Martin, has created a clever comedy that will make you laugh so hard that tears may unexpectedly roll down your cheeks. The original play poked fun at the pretentiousness of middle-class German society during that period. Using this same theme, and non-stop double entendres, Martin prefers to concentrate on unmasking all levels of false-faced folks and their underlying sexual desires. And, speaking of unmasking, it’s no accident that the central couple in this masterpiece happens to be named “Maske.”
A bored, Frau Louise Maske (Jenny Leona) faces the rebuke of her respectable husband Theo (Jeff McCarthy). He’s is a minor government bureaucrat who like “Henny Penny,” feels that his whole world is falling down along with his wife’s underpants. Apparently the waist string of her bloomers accidentally broke and the undergarment fell to the ground during a parade honoring the Kaiser. While the incident seems rather insignificant to Louise, it sets off a series of unexpected events when her nosey, upstairs neighbor, Gertrude (Didi Conn) suggests that she take on a lover. Co-incidentally, the couple has an adjoining room to rent and a series of strange men, prompted by the notoriety of the wife’s underwear, become interested in being part-time renters. Among them is a handsome poet (Burke Moses) who gets more excited over his inspiration than the actual sex act. Next, is a very unlikely lover -- a small, bald-headed, barber, Benjamin Cohen, who professes his name is spelled with a “K.” In an accidental drugged state (another foiled sexual encounter) his rubber legs are totally unreal as he exits up the stairs to his room. Finally, we have Mr. Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff), a persistent, elderly gentleman who simply requires a quite, respectable room to rent. Where this all leads is for you to see and enjoy.
A note from the underground -- or “What you will:”
The show’s title also has a double meaning. The phrase, “I lost my underpants” generally refers to being humiliated in some way. To paraphrase “All Quiet on the Western Front” (a film about needless deaths caused by wars) -- If we could strip all the generals to their underwear (in order to unmask and humiliate) and place them in the boxing ring to fight over their differences (instead of huge armies marching to their deaths) perhaps this world would be a better place.
And so it is with this play. Whether intentional or not, during the epilogue, when the entire cast forms a conga line and dances in their underwear, it’s very sobering to note that a pair of men’s shorts (think of the boxing shorts mentioned above) happens to be made out of the German flag. Accordingly, Jess Goldstein’s colorful costumes fit the gay mood and the entire, fun-loving cast under the guidance of Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edlestein assures you of a wonderful evening.
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” November/2013