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Kristine Nielsen, Cheryl Lynn Bowers,
and Christian Camargo in The Underpants
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
The Underpants is a fine play, a giddy trifle with some funny characters and occasional lightning flashes of wit. It is not a great play, nor even an especially memorable one--though one feels, after it's over, that maybe it should have been. Here we've got production of a comedy by Steve Martin, a masterful comedian and proven playwright (Picasso at the Lapine Agile, etc.), adapted from a classic of the German repertory by Carl Sternheim and led by an assured director, Classic Stage Company's Barry Edelstein.

Why, then, is The Underpants only intermittently engaging, neither intellectually stimulating nor laugh provoking to any great degree? Perhaps because Sternheim, Martin, and Edelstein seem to have had different goals for the play. Sternheim's spoof on the bourgeois is not particularly well served by Martin's garrulous non-sequiturs; though the comedian is certainly capable of dry wit, his style here is more in the "wild and crazy" vein, with jokes about wieners, German flags stitched onto panties, and so on. And the adaptation is further muddled rather than elevated by Edelstein's aggressive, well-over-the-top direction.

Sternheim's plot (by way of Martin) follows Theo and Louise Marke (Byron Jennings and Cheryl Lynn Bowers), a middle-class couple whose conservative existence is sent into an uproar when Louise's bloomers fall off in public. Though she pulls them up quickly, Theo fears that the incident will cost him his job as a government clerk. Louise's momentary display attracts not scandal, however, but a pair of infatuated men, each of whom shows up to rent the spare room from the Markes and surreptitiously pitch woo. Oblivious, Theo splits the room between them, glad to collect rent from both the foppish poet Versati (Christian Camargo) and the whiny hypochondriac Cohen (Lee Wilkof). Rounding out the cast is Kristine Nielsen as the Markes' nosy and lusty upstairs neighbor Gertrude, William Duell as another potential lodger, and Patrick Boll as a last-minute arrival.

Other than Louise--who, as played by Bowers, is thoughtful and wide-eyed to the point of tedium--all of these characters are self-satisfied, self-centered boobs. Expressing his terror after the underpants incident, Theo wonders: "How could this have happened to me?" Versati, told that a man shows he is a real man by "taking care of someone," must then be reminded that "taking care of yourself doesn't count." Gertrude pushes Louise into an affair with the poet so that she can listen through the ceiling and enjoy herself vicariously.

This is funny stuff, and it's not surprising that Steve Martin is no slouch with the one-liners. (Later in the action, Cohen objects to the term "barbaric" as offensive to barbers.) But though a string of humorous bits makes a good stand-up act, it doesn't necessarily make an engaging play. One repeated gag, that of Cohen trying to pretend he's not Jewish ("Uh...that's Cohen with a K"), doesn't do much for the character or the action. When Louise returns from the theater and says that she saw "the new Sternheim comedy...needs to be adapted," the line serves no purpose other than to show off writerly cleverness. Any chance that we might have been brought to ponder the issues that Sternheim and Martin are dealing with--fame and infamy, social politics, bourgeois morality--are sabotaged by a winking, somehow anachronistic sense of humor that continually draws us out of rather than into the world of the play.

Edelstein, meanwhile, is directing a farce. Theo hollers and blusters the whole time as the stolid, pig-headed, and pompous Basil Fawlty; Gertrude rolls her eyes and licks her chops with lascivious glee; Cohen rubs his aching back and exclaims "Oy!" Edelstein's decision to keep his cast at a manic level of performance, overpronouncing and exaggerating their lines, makes Martin's jokes less funny than they would be if delivered straight.

The best stretch in The Underpants comes when Versati, trying to lure Theo out of the house (so he can get him drunk, abandon him, then go and make love to Louise), engages him in a lively philosophical discussion. Versati's free-spirited, Nietzschean aesthetic is pitted against Theo's gruff pragmatism. Martin, Sternheim, and Edelstein are all on the same page here: Edelstein calms down the action, allowing the ideas to be clearly communicated, while Martin's wit directs us to the heart of the conversation rather than distracting from it. And then we come to the best line of the evening. Versati tells Theo, "It was Descartes who said that we exist." Theo's response: "Someone had to say that?"

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