Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Underpants at Arden Theatre Company
Theo Maske has never been so embarrassed in his life. And he believes the fallout (so to speak) from this calamity will ruin his career. "You know how I hate attention," he says. "I'm a government clerk. I blend in."
Theo's easygoing wife Louise insists that he has nothing to be worried about, but she can't calm him down. "I can't believe it's happened to me," he says. "It didn't happen to you," Louise replies.
What is Theo so upset about? Well, it seems that Theo and Louise were on a crowded street watching their King parade by when Louise's underpants accidentally came undone and fell to the ground. Before their story is finished, a lot more may come undone - perhaps Theo's career, perhaps Theo and Louise's marriage, perhaps the veneer of hypocrisy and pretense that protects their place in society.
These are the issues that face this couple in The Underpants, Steve Martin's adaptation of a 1910 comedy by the German playwright Carl Sternheim.
Theo and Louise try to put the incident behind them, but that's not so easy when everyone else in town is talking about it. What's more, the Maskes have a room to rent - and two men who saw Louise's accident are vying to be the new boarder. And then there's Gertrude - "the mouth who lives upstairs," as Theo calls her - who knows what Louise needs better than Louise does. Now that two strangers are fighting for Louise's affections, Gertrude convinces Louise that this is the perfect time to escape a humdrum, year-old marriage - at least for a few moments of passion.
The new production of The Underpants at the Arden Theatre makes the most of Sternheim's satiric situation and Martin's witty dialogue. Even the set design is funny. Scenic designer Kris Stone has taken forced perspective to an absurd level, making everything in the Maskes' apartment seem out of kilter. Director Aaron Posner moves things along briskly, rarely letting the tempo drag (although Martin's tone is inconsistent, and a few scenes veer into philosophical debates which threaten to derail the show).
As Gertrude, the fussiest, nosiest neighbor in town, Jennifer Childs channels the eccentric spirit of ZaSu Pitts. Moving in quick, short, precise steps across the stage, and speaking in a quavery tone that makes everything she says funny, Childs is a delight.
So is Jeffrey Coon as Versati, the overly demonstrative, bohemian poet ("Unpublished, I am proud to say") who becomes Louise's suitor. Coon takes every opportunity to be more and more outlandish and get bigger and bigger laughs. His best scene is a hilarious moment of improvisation when he goes into the audience and praises the looks, the hair, even the jewelry of the female theatergoers. Louise's other suitor, the meek and mild (well, most of the time) Cohen, is played by Joe Schulz. Schulz gives Cohen a goofy sincerity, and he showcases a gift for pratfalls and other physical comedy.
Scott Greer plays Theo as a man so proper and obstinate that he rarely changes his expression, even when attempting seduction. Theo is supposed to be resolute, but in Greer's hands he ends up being dull, and Louise's attraction to him becomes bewildering.
And then there's the lady with the drooping drawers, Ericka Kreutz as Louise. Martin's script requires Louise to be a female straight man, reacting with surprise to the outlandish behavior of everyone around her. That makes it difficult for any actress playing her to stand out. Kreutz does a good job expressing wonder at her sudden desirability; yet the script also requires her to mature, changing from a prim, repressed bride to a shrewd woman of the world. Kreutz remains wide-eyed and bland for most of the show, unable to give her scenes the zany spirit that Chiles and Coon provide or the depth that the character needs. Near the play's end, she has a scene in which Louise must use her brain to outwit another prospective tenant (David Howey), yet she seems to be just going through the motions. It's hard to believe she's fooling him; she may be the most coveted woman in the city, but she doesn't seem to be the wisest. Still, Kreutz is so sweet in the part that you'll be rooting for her to pull off that deception, and happy when things turn out her way.
Martin's script offers a lot to think about and a lot to laugh about, and the outstanding supporting performances help to make The Underpants a memorable night at the theater.
The Underpants runs through October 31 at the Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street. Ticket prices range from $24 to $40 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at (215) 922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or by visiting the box office.