Snickers over knickers

The Lyric Stage airs Steve Martin’s Underpants
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 12, 2006

With fame often comes overexposure. But in Steve Martin’s The Underpants, which he adapted from German writer Carl Sternheim’s 1910 farce Die Hosen, the fame is over exposure. Before the curtain goes up, attractive hausfrau Louise Maske has suffered a wardrobe malfunction: her bloomers fell to her ankles as she strained to watch a passing parade with the king as its main attraction. As the play opens, her blockheaded bourgeois husband, Theo, a civil servant, is berating her over the incident, whose notoriety he fears will bring the luster of scandal to his cherished dullness as a cog in the government machine and possibly lead to his unemployment and ruin.UNMENTIONABLES? In fact, the undies get mentioned early and often.

What actually happens is that a couple of swains, captivated by the dropped drawers, show up dueling to occupy a room the Maskes have recently advertised for rent. As the romantic poet Versati sets out to seduce Louise (with the cheerleading aid of voyeuristic neighbor Gertrude), the sickly barber Cohen vows out of jealousy not to let it happen. And as these two vie for Louise’s attentions right under her husband’s nose, Theo remains obstinately blind, with eyes only for the “reality” he passionately if idiotically advocates. Sternheim’s original bristles with social criticism — some of it more potent in hindsight, since conformist, anti-Semitic Theo is just what the Nazis will have ordered. Martin takes an airier tact, throws in a lot of double entendre and just plain bawdiness (“You deserve something in you at night,” one woman counsels another, “besides sauerkraut”), and tacks on a surprise ending reminiscent of Elvis’s appearance at the end of Picasso at the Lapin Agile that’s followed by a Doll’s House mini-moment for Louise. And he really likes the word “underpants” — eliminate its many repetitions and the two-hour play would probably be 20 minutes shorter.

The Underpants was commissioned by New York’s Classic Stage Company, which produced it in 2002. Daniel Gidron is at the helm of its frolicsome area debut at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where it proves mildly diverting if not what the New York Times pronounced “laugh-out-loud funny.” The one thing that does make you laugh out loud is Theo, though he’s such a willfully prosaic, chauvinistic nightmare that he probably shouldn’t. But played with foolish, not clownish obtuseness by Steven Barkhimer, in whose guise the character is stocky of body and mind, he’s irresistible, never more so than when making pronouncements like “I can’t change my mind. I’d have nothing to think.”
Martin has taken Sternheim’s cruel bourgeois and pushed him over the edge into authoritarian whimsy. Whimsy is also the key to Cristina Todesco’s middle-class home, with its dangling daguerreotypes, merry wallpaper, and neighbor’s entrances and exits through a window. Gidron keeps the farcical action moving jauntily along, though it lacks the over-the-top antic precision that might make it funnier.

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