Two River Plays The Underpants
Also see Bob's review of Henry V
It is 1910. The setting is the Dusseldorf flat of Theo Maske and his pretty, younger wife of one year, Louise. The domineering Theo is an insecure civil service bureaucrat who has eschewed having sex with Louise (save for their wedding night) for fear of having a child before he has more money. However, as the curtain rises, Theo is fearful that he has been disgraced and may lose his job because everyone is gossiping about the fact that, while Louise was outside watching Kaiser Wilhelm pass by in a parade, her underpants slipped off her waist and fell to the ground.
However, the fallen garment quickly brings Theo a windfall. Two foolish men, one an Italian barber, the other a Jewish poet, aroused by the sight of the frilly garment and seeking to seduce Louise, arrive hoping to rent the room for which Theo has been in need of a boarder. Both agree to share the room, doubling Theo's anticipated rental income.
Being unfamiliar with the original German play, the observations that I make are based on Steve Martin's adaptation. I should note that Sternheim is regarded as having been a biting critic of the morals and values of the German bourgeois. In this adaptation, there is no stinging social satire. Theo is shown as a fool unto himself. There is no sense that he represents either his class or position. Although the situation is farcical, the classical elements of farce are not present. There is no mistaken identity, only one instance (non-essential to the plot) of pretense or impersonation and no slamming doors for the farceurs to hide behind. With one probable exception, it is the inventiveness of the director and cast which produces the farcical laughter. There is a comedic "twist" ending, but it does not register with sufficient humor or impact to effectively cap the proceedings.
On the other hand, Martin's adaptation implicitly implies criticism of excessive societal repression of human sexuality, simultaneously satirizing men who lose their good sense when sexually aroused.
The funniest performance is turned in by Erik Lochtefeld as the Jewish barber. A bumbling milquetoast emboldened by his desire, Lochtefeld performs pratfalls with great comic agility, and delivers dialogue with excellent comic timing and inflection. Cody Nickell as the Italian poet whose greatest love is himself effectively sends up the suave Latin lover with his florid and heavily accented line readings.
David B. Heuvelman is amusingly blustery as the perpetually outraged Theo. Tara Giordano strongly conveys the growing confidence and sense of self worth of Louise as she basks in the attention that she is receiving. Marcia Sanders as the busybody upstairs neighbor who encourages Louise to fulfill herself displays great comic flair.
Jackson Gay has directed with a great deal of inventiveness. She employs mimed action between scenes in lovely commedia dell'arte style. Gay and her cast outdo themselves in the play's best farcical moment when Theo enters unexpectedly while she and her suitors appear to be in a compromising position. She and Scenic Designer Aleksandra Maslik make perfect use of the exceptionally well designed stage space. The large and evocatively detailed set is a big plus, as are Jessica Ford's time, place and character defining costumes.
Hopefully, Two River and/or other New Jersey theatres will rediscover the too long unseen great champagne quality farces of the master George Feydeau. For now, Two River, Carl Sternheim, Steve Martin, and Jackson Gay and her solid cast are expertly serving up some tasty German beer with their production of The Underpants.
The Underpants continues performances through May 27, 2007 (Wed. 1 p.m./ Thurs., Fri., Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m.) at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online www.trtc.org.
The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin; directed by Jackson Gay