F rom Australia to Hong Kong, Mississippi to Michigan, Iowa to Indiana, from 2002 to the present, and now in New Haven, actresses have been baring their bloomers for comedian Steve Martin’s The Underpants, a hysterical and refocused-for-the-times adaptation of the 1911 German farce Die Hose by playwright Carl Sternheim. Long Wharf Theatre is showing its production of Underpants until Sunday, November 10, on the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre. A co-production with Hartford Stage, it will later play up there, from January 9 to February 9, 2014.
When Sternheim originally penned Die Hose—one of several from the plays he called “Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class”—the title alone caused it to be banned by the censors. If not for the persuasive pleading to the Chief of Police by beautiful actress Tilla Durieux in a private showing of the play, it might never have been performed. The then-indelicate title, which does in fact mean “The Underpants,” was changed to Der Riese, or “The Giant.”
The revised title probably referred to Theo Maske, the dictatorial husband of Louise Maske, who he feels ruined their lives by an accident of indiscretion. Louise—played here by a soft-spoken and obedient Jenny Leona (pictured above, at right)—is a dreamer, and she has gone to the King’s parade in search of adventure. During the parade, just as the King is passing by, she loses control of her bloomers and they fall to her ankles. Theo (played by Jeff McCarthy) is incensed, as if Louise had planned the royal insult on purpose. Theo imagines losing his job over the offense, with shame and poverty awaiting just around the bend and Düsseldorf society turning its back on them.
When Steve Martin revived and adapted the 91-year-old play, he sprinkled it with historical and literary odds and ends, from Don Juan to the Loch Ness Monster, Rudolph Valentino to Sigmund Freud, whether they fit the context or not. The interdisciplinary bits make more sense when you realize that, although Martin’s career was made in comedy as a movie, television and stage star, he’s a man of many talents and pursuits, which has become especially apparent in his later years. He plucks a mean banjo and has penned serious fiction. He’s a serious art collector, too, and has made large endowments to art museums around Tinseltown. And the world would have lost a master comic if he had more doggedly pursued his original career plan: becoming a professor of philosophy.
In The Underpants, Martin’s often absurd sense of humor is evident in every witty word. For him, this is not so much a play about class and status as it is a thought experiment—about how, under the right conditions, fifteen seconds of fame or infamy (much less than Andy Warhol’s celebrated fifteen minutes) can change a person’s life.
Countering Louise’s first-rate browbeater of a husband, who controls their purse strings and lifestyle—he alone dictates what she will wear, what they will eat and when and if they will conceive a child—is wonderful and wacky upstairs neighbor Gertrude, who comes to delightful life in the hands of Didi Conn (pictured above, at left). Gertrude is thrilled when Louise’s public mishap brings two unlikely suitors to her door, on the surface to rent a room: the exuberant poet Versati (Burke Moses) and the hypochondriac barber Cohen (Steve Routman). Both men have witnessed her accident and are intrigued, subsequently contributing to Louise’s burgeoning sense of independence. Add in one old man who suffers from senility and constipation, played by George Bartenieff, plus a masterful surprise guest, and you have the entire cast. That they take pleasure marching around Lee Savage’s beautifully designed apartment set in Jess Goldstein’s detailed costumes is quite evident.
Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein directs this light-and-heavy lark, which is as good for a single laugh as it is for a few hundred. Be prepared to snicker during this tale of errant knickers.
Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Drive, New Haven (map)
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.