Vicki Paris Goodman
Steve Martin’s contribution to The Underpants was actually a 2002 adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 German expressionist play. And the Long Beach Playhouse has given the work a skosh more updating purportedly still honoring the spirit of the original. Hence, we have, technically speaking, the adaptation of an adaptation. And this latest is a worthy endeavor, to say the least.
Not having seen Sternheim’s nor Martin’s– their plays, not their shorts– I have no means of comparison. That’s a good thing, since audiences care far more about whether they are likely to enjoy the production than how closely it resembles its source material.
There is so much to like about The Underpants. (I’m now wondering if the play’s name was intended to confound critics by turning almost every sentence of a review into an awkward pun. A playwright’s sweet revenge?) Take Naomi Kasahava’s fabulous set, a high contrast vision of grayscale artistry. Or the honesty of raw emotion emanating from a sexually neglected young wife. Even the play’s succinct single-act duration makes its point and then finishes up without further adieu.
In turn-of-the-century Dusseldorf, the townspeople are out to watch the spectacle of the Kaiser’s parade. In struggling to get a better view, lovely Louise (Maranda Barskey) has a lingerie mishap wherein her panties fall to her feet. She adroitly picks up the unmentionables with the least possible fanfare. But the damage is done. Every man in the crowd has apparently witnessed Louise’s misfortune and has been “affected” by the event. Even Louise’s husband Theo (Mitchell Nunn) is upended, but not for the reasons one would think. Rather, he believes the calamity will reflect badly on his reputation and career.
Speaking of parades, men begin to show up at Theo and Louise’s apartment in rapid succession suddenly willing to pay above-market rent to lease the couple’s extra room. First is the fashionable, tall, dark, and handsome Versati (Brian Rohan), the poet who prefers the fantasy over the act itself. Soon after, the comical Cohen (Jeff Asch) appears. The prudish Klinglehoff (John Gilbert) inquires next for the actual purpose of renting a room – really. And just as we think we’re done with the men, the final admirer (Steven Biggs) tops all and changes everything.
Meanwhile, at least Louise has a friend – one who shamelessly encourages and attempts to facilitate the consummation of Louise’s frustrated desires. Admittedly living vicariously through Louise, neighbor Gertrude (Jane Nunn), an amiable busybody of the highest order, sews Louise a pair of fancy bloomers just for the occasion.
The Underpants is thankfully not the frantic farce one might expect. Shadowy melodramatic interludes set to inspiring Germanic music separate the scenes that set a relatively relaxed pace and lightness of mood. Exaggerated personalities blend with Theo’s oppressive environment to elicit an unusual balance between audience compassion and amusement.
Director Craig Fleming and his talented cast excel on every count. Barskey plays an enchanting Louise. Frequently evoking our sympathy to her marital subjugation, she also dramatizes the inter-scene segues to a tee. Asch is especially effective in his amusing and ultimately endearing role.
The Underpants pokes great fun at the sexes while highlighting the politics involving them. Men vs. women, fidelity vs. infidelity, sex vs. fantasy – all are examined in this sometimes ridiculous and always entertaining production.
The Underpants continues in the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through Sept. 10. General admission tickets are $24; $21 for seniors. Student tickets are $14 with valid student ID. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, with matinees at 2pm on Sundays. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org.