Steve Martin Turns His Hand to Farce
By Karen Isaacs
Steve Martin is more than just a comedian. After all he received the Mark Twain Prize for humor. He is a successful playwright as well, having written Picasso at Lapin Agile, plus novellas, and the screenplays for A Simple Twist of Fate and Roxanne. Long Wharf is producing The Underpants, his adaptation of a German farce set in the beginning of the 20th century.
Martin acknowledges that his The Underpants takes many liberties with the original script and yet they all seem wonderful. But he retains the basic plot of Carl Sterhnheim's Die Hose: A young housewife married to an overly cautious bureaucrat has an accident at a parade as the king passes by. When she stands on a bench and lifts her arms to see him better; the drawstring holding up her undergarment comes lose and the garment falls to her ankles. Though she quickly snatches it up, the event has not gone unnoticed. Her husband is horrified and afraid he will lose his job, but to others it is a titillating bit of news. For the wife, Louise, it opens the window to a more interesting life.
After the incident, their upstairs neighbor, a nosey spinster is enthralled with the possibilities that may arise. Since the couple is renting out one of their rooms, soon a procession of men show up at the door, lured by the thought of the underpants. The husband, thinking only of money, rents the room to two gentleman: Frank Versati - delightfully played by Burke Moses -- a suave lothario who want to enjoy a rendezvous with Louise and Benjamin Cohen, a timid middle-aged barber who tries to hide his Jewishness from the husband. He too is enamored of Louise.
Thus we are set for a traditional farce: people evading each other, unexpected entrances, and near misses. While I won't give the denouement away, I can reveal that Louise enjoys the attention and her neighbor, Gertrude, gets vicarious thrills from the goings on.
Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein has appropriately kept this moving at a quick pace; the show is just about 70 minutes in length. He also keeps the laughs coming. As with any farce, the characters are exaggerated. Jeff McCarthy as the stolid husband, seems obtuse -- both to his wife's boredom and sexual needs - and to the interests of the two renters to alleviate both. He is totally focused on propriety. Jenny Leona as Louise is both naive and knowing. You wonder if the "accident" was really accidental.
Didi Conn as the spinster neighbor and Burke Moses as the lothario are truly delights. Conn is both kittenish and conspiratorial. The scene where she too begins to feel desired is hilarious. Moses makes Frank a little over the top but also charming. Both George Bartenieff as a third potential border -- as if two weren't enough -- and Steve Routman as Cohen -- add to the fun.
Edelstein has also created a last scene and a curtain call that will have you leaving the theater in utter delight. He's been ably assisted by the period costumes of Jess Goldstein, the set by Lee Savage and the lighting by Robert Wierzel.
This is a co-production with Hartford Stage. It will play in Hartford, Jan. 9 to Feb. 9 with the same cast.
The Underpants is at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through Nov. 10. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers November 6, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.