Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Director John Going once again brings his assured way with farce to the stage of the Olney Theatre Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The entertaining production is The Underpants, Steve Martin's adaptation of an early 20th-century play by German playwright Carl Sternheim. (Martin tosses in an in-joke when one character speaks of seeing a Sternheim play that "needs to be adapted.")
While Sternheim may have intended originally to take a satiric look at the pretentious behavior of the bourgeoisie, Martin goes straight for delightful excess in the story of Louise (Allison McLemore), the sweet young bride of pompous government clerk Theo Maske (James Beneduce). In 1910 Dusseldorf, Germany, Theo is apoplectic because of an incident that has occurred before the play begins: Louise was in a crowd watching the king pass by in a parade whenaccidentally#151;her bloomers slipped off and fell to the ground.
The ensuing shenanigans all boil down to "Don't underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie." Louise soon finds herself besieged by two strangers besotted by the sight of her undergarment, both determined to rent the spare room in the Maskes' apartment. They are Frank Versati (Jeffries Thaiss), an oily poet, and Benjamin Cohen (Bruce Nelson), a nervous barber who tries to deflect Theo's dislike of Jews by stressing his love of the operas of (musical genius and famous anti-Semite) Richard Wagner. Gertrude Deuter (Joan Rosenfels), Louise's lonely upstairs neighbor, is thrilled by the whole escapade and offers her help to the frustrated younger woman.
While Martin obviously has a way with a witty line, the main thing in farce is physical humor, and Going has assembled a group of actors who know how to do it beautifully. The highlights are Nelson using a variety of silly walks to propel himself across the stage; Thaiss, so absorbed in his literary pretensions that he's oblivious to the swooning Louise; and Rosenfels, a woman who gets fluttery as she determines to stage-manage her friend's affairs for reasons of her own. McLemore is blandly pretty, appropriate for a woman desired not for herself but for the sight of her underwear, and Beneduce is properly stodgy and unaware of what's going on around him.
Scenic designer James Wolk has created an all-encompassing, gingerbread-like set with an amazing amount of detail: knickknacks on small tables, a workmanlike kitchen sink to one side, a divided front door that allows the reliable knock in the face as distracted people try to exit without looking, and outside evocations of an entire neighborhood.
Olney Theatre Center