Taking place in a caricatured version of 1910 Germany - a world of peasant dresses, wieners and anti-Semitism - The Underpants gets moving when the underpants get moving. Southward. At a parade for the King, a beautiful woman stands up high to get a better view, a knot breaks, and her underpants accidentally drop, giving everyone around a tantalizing glimpse of her bloomers. Meredith Patterson plays drawer-dropper Louise with a goodness and cheeriness that overshadow Louise's sometimes scatterbrained behavior.
The real beauty in Martin's writing - besides the outright laughs, of course - is that there's no actual antagonist in the play. Louise is clearly the heroine, and the audience roots for her from the beginning. But everyone surrounding her has some level of goodness. It might be small and difficult to see, but there's something redeeming, or at least redeemable, in everyone else. This keeps the audience guessing as to the happy ending we know the show is aiming for, because it isn't just an issue of Louise ending up happy and some "bad guy" getting what he deserves. It's more an issue of who can best give Louise her happy ending.
Take her husband, Theo, played by Dan Castellaneta, whose years as the voice of Homer Simpson have honed to perfection his ability to show the good heart hiding behind a stupid brain. Theo is a low-level government clerk who is mortified by the underpants incident - not for any embarrassment it may have caused Louise, but because it would ruin his career if people thought he was married to a slut. "I'm a government clerk," he says, "I blend in." Theo realizes his wife is young and beautiful, but only in an objective sense; he is not personally attracted to her and shows her absolutely no affection. In fact, since their wedding night, he has not had sex with his wife. This is because his practical mind believes they do not have enough money to have a child. But one can't help but wonder, if he had the money, if he wouldn't let loose the floodgates and show Louise a love that he's been withholding from himself as much as her.
The one thing neither Theo nor Louise counted on was that Louise's public display would make it so much easier for them to rent that vacant room in their apartment. Indeed, men seem to be falling over themselves to get into the same house as the lovely exhibitionist. First is Versati, an unpublished poet who sees in Louise a new muse. Played to smarmy Latin Lover perfection by Anthony Crivello, Versati is all swirling cape, flowery words, and sensuality. He is followed by Patrick Kerr as Cohen, er, "Kohen," an unkempt, nebbishy barber who tries to hide his Jewishness in order to convince Theo to rent him the room. Throw in Amy Aquino as the realistic, no-nonsense neighbor Gertrude, who thinks Louise ought to get some while the gettin's good, and all of a sudden Louise finds herself considering whether her happy marriage is really happy enough.
Director John Rando keeps things moving quickly during the play's single act, and he has his cast deftly mix low physical comedy with the rather higher dialogue-based jokes of the script. Alexander Dodge's set design - in which the entire apartment is build slightly askew - is a perfect reflection of the fairy tale world of the script. And Jeff Croiter gets points for comedic lighting, using light cues to emphasize character and jokes in this unreal world.
Very simply, the Geffen Playhouse's production of The Underpants is a charming production of a delightful play.
The Underpants runs at the Geffen Playhouse through April 25, 2004. www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Geffen Playhouse - Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director, Stephen Eich, Managing Director -- present The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin. Scenery by Alexander Dodge; Costumes by Tina Haatainen Jones; Lighting by Jeff Croiter; Original Music & Sound by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg; Stage Manager James T. McDermott; Assistant Stage Manager Lisa J. Snodgrass; Fight Consultant Steve Rankin; Casting by Phyllis Schuringa; Directed by John Rando.
Photo by Ken Howard