THE POET MAKES A POINT Morris and Medina in The Underpants.
Shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater and you get one response. Shout “Die Hose!” (women’s undies) in a German theater back in 1911 and you got another kind of uproar. When satirist Carl Sternheim staged the play by that name, the morally pretentious German bourgeoisie were shocked, shocked, shocked, and the curtain soon came down under government censorship.
The Underpants, the 2002 adaptation by Steve Martin, is being staged by 2nd Story Theatre (through May 30), and it certainly is fun to feel smugly superior to those social hypocrites. We can shove aside thoughts of our own social hypocrisies for a while and laugh, laugh, laugh.
Both the original and this version start off fired from a cannon: an explosive incident has just occurred. Louise (Rachel Morris) and husband Theo (F. William Oakes) have just returned from viewing a parade, at which her underpants inexplicably fell to her ankles, to the nostril-flaring fascination of observing males. In the original play, her husband physically assaults her, but Martin wants to induce laughter rather than moral qualm, so here Theo just blusters.
They have a room to rent, and in short order two young men show up, eager to sign a lease and neglecting to quibble about the cost. Yes, they were witnesses to the dropped drawers and are hoping to get lucky about more than living accommodations. The dapper poet Versati (Dillon Medina) doesn’t tip his hand at first, so Louise agrees. But when Herr Cohen (Jonathan Jacobs) shows up, Theo figures he can divide the room in half and charge them both. (That’s “Cohen with a K,” the prospective boarder insists. Sternheim’s father was Jewish, and he originally named the character a similarly revealing Mandelstam while also having him deny the obvious.)
When the handsome Versati arrives, upstairs neighbor Gertrude (Paula Faber) encourages Louise, who longs to be adored, to yield to his heart-throbbing, poetical attentions. Married a year, Louise admits that except for her wedding night she is virtually still a virgin, since her Pfennig-pinching government bureaucrat husband doesn’t think they can afford a baby. With all this money suddenly coming into the house, you can guess who her next lustful suitor will be: Theo — although he has already been after the upstairs neighbor. (Successfully in Die Hose, not so here. Martin doesn’t want to muddy the comical waters.)
The acting here is on the money, all around. Oakes is a hand-rubbing villain you love to hiss at; Morris is a perky, pretty ingénue with enough of a gleam in her eye to convincingly turn naughty. The two gentleman callers, Medina and Jacobs, are respectively dewy-eyed and sly, per story requirements, and Faber’s worldly neighbor nicely balances helpfulness and libido. A minor character eventually comes in, Klinglehoff, a skittish sort who wants to get away from the social and moral pressures of the world, and Vince Petronio thoroughly gets into making him a nervous wreck.
Playwright Sternheim was out to pop some balloons of puffed-up pretension, as Frank Wedekind did 20 years earlier with Spring Awakening. Martin’s rubber-tipped arrows can hardly do the same here, but his aim is to make fun for us rather than of us. These days the bourgeoisie are a comfortable cohort large enough to encompass us and Martin too. So farce is the chosen style here, rather than brutally accusatory satire. No well-meaning middle-class characters were harmed in the making of this play.