If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
“Underpants” Opens New Season at Long Wharf
It is, apparently, silly season for some of our major regional theatres in Connecticut. In the past few weeks I’ve witnessed such light comic fare as “Room Service” at the Westport Country Playhouse, “La Dispute” at Hartford Stage and “Mrs. Mannerly” at TheaterWorks. Now New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre has elected to open their 49th season with “The Underpants”, a saucy, inconsequential sex farce adapted from the original 1911 German play (by Carl Sternheim) by none other than Steve Martin.
Set in Dusseldorf in the early 20th century, “The Underpants” starts off on a loud note in the form of Theo Maske (a beyond-boisterous Jeff McCarthy), who is berating his young wife, Louise (Jenny Leona, lovely) for allowing her undergarments to fall in public while viewing a parade. That seemingly infantile incident results in a flurry of horny men to the Maske home eager to rent the room that’s currently available. The men include a lusty poet (Burke Moses), who never met a simile that he couldn’t mangle, and a bald barber (Steve Routman) whose rubbery physicality makes him Louise’s most hilarious suitor. Through it all, Theo is oblivious to his new tenants’ motivations as all such dim-witted alpha males must be in farces of this type.
There is a satiric undercurrent to “The Underpants” with timely commentary on how fleeting fame is for those who commit “notorious” acts. It also suggests the whisper of anti-Semitism that would soon become a major issue in Germany. But the bulk of Mr. Martin’s adaptation is made up of bad puns and some pretty sad double entendres. There are also exchanges that just seem to take the air out of the room: “It’s barbaric!” says one. “How dare you insult barbers!” counters another. The tedious plot runs out of steam probably midpoint of its 95-minute running time (no intermission, thankfully), but under Gordon Edelstein’s lively direction, his game cast certainly makes the most of what is there.
I especially enjoyed seeing Didi Conn whose adorability factor hasn’t aged a day since she sang “You Light Up My Life” and starred in the film of the same title back in 1977. She is most winning in “The Underpants” playing an exuberant upstairs neighbor yearning to live vicariously through Louisa’s romantic exploits. Mr. McCarthy, so good in previous productions of “The Price” and “The Front Page” at Long Wharf, brings a burst of energy into every scene and his fellow actors breathlessly have fun keeping up with him. The play ain’t much, but damned if this cast gives a hoot.
Lee Savage’s modest home setting includes a sweet little staircase and tiny raised kitchen unit and Jess Goldstein’s costuming is fine especially the array of undergarments he unleashes for a cheeky curtain call. The play evaporates from your mind almost as soon as you hit the parking lot, but you’ll still probably laugh here and there. And hate yourself for it.
Note: Despite the liberal use of Mr. Martin’s photo in all the print ads for “The Underpants”, the comic does not appear at Long Wharf.
“The Underpants” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through November 10. It is a co-production with Hartford Stage where it will begin its run on January 9, 2014. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.