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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Great Slapstick Version of The Underpants

Also see Richard's review of The Good Body and Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story

The Underpants
Theo Maske (background)
and Jarion Monroe

The San Jose Repertory Theatre, in association with the Arizona Theatre Company, is presenting Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's classic 1910 German comedy The Underpants. I always thought a German farce was an oxymoron, but the celebrated comedian's adaptation has proven me wrong. This is a fast, 100-minute sex comedy with a lot of pratfalls, double entendres, Catskills humor and zany goings on as persons enter and exit at dizzying speed.

Everything and everybody is obvious in this bawdy satire. The pretty but na´ve Louise Maske (Julia Dion), who desperately needs passion in her life, is the neglected wife of the egocentric, male chauvinist, blockhead bureaucrat Theo Maske (Conan McCarty). Theo is fuming because his wife's bloomers slipped down around her ankles in the town square while she was watching a parade for the King. Suddenly, she is in the spotlight and Theo is ashamed, thinking he will lose his government job as an assistant clerk.

The Maskes have a room to let, and suddenly Louise has become the center of attention as people arrive, seeking the room based on the wife's dropped underpants. Knocking at the door are a myopic unpublished poet (Frank Versati), who jumps about the stage flapping his white cape like Batman, and a hypochondriac Jewish barber (Everett Quinton), who tells the husband his name is Cohen with a "K." (There is a smack on anti-Semitism, as he tries to hide his Jewishness even in 1910 Germany; playwright Sternheim was half Jewish.) The poet and the barber share the room and both hope to share Louise without the underpants.

Gertrude (Peggity Price), a wonderful nosy neighbor, lives above them and wants to see na´ve Louise become passionate with the poet since she would somehow get a sexual thrill from the intercourse. (Apparently the wife has been married to Theo for one year and it has never been consummated due to fact that stingy husband can't afford a child on his budget). Needless to say, things get mixed up as all farces must. Toward the end, a straight laced German scientific professor (Jarion Manroe) gets into the act, as well as the King (Ken Ruta in a wonderful cameo).

All of the acting is strictly farcical with boob jokes, a funny sex act, lustful sight gags and even a little spot of passing gas in the home. There is tempting wordplay going on at all times. Conan McCarty (recently seen in Richard Dresser's Rounding Third in New York) portrays Theo as a rigid egocentric taskmaster but he does have fun with characters' idiosyncrasies. His speech has wonderful innuendos. All of this is done with a straight face.

Benjamin Cohen (21 years as a member of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre Company and Drama Desk and Obie awards for The Mystery of Irma Vep) almost steals the show with his broad burlesque mixed with low comedy burlesque as the Jewish barber Cohen. He has the best groaners, such as when the poet says "you are barbaric." Cohen replies, "How dare you insult barbers?" There are many nostalgic vaudeville jokes coming from this talented comedian's mouth. His actions are part Buster Keaton with a Dick Van Dyke walk when going down some steps. Looking at him, I could not help but think of Bert Lahr on speed.

Julia Dion (New York actress recently in A Majority of One and Bad Juju) is enchanting as Louise. She gives a wonderful, sweet performance as the na´ve wife who grows within herself as the comedy progresses. A high point in this comedy inovolves her character initiating a funny sex scene with the Italian poet. Jim Iorio (New York actor who has appeared with many regional companies including the Guthrie Theatre) is wonderful as the wacky Italian romantic poet. He flits about the stage, twirling his white cape like a ham version of John Barrymore, expounding in a theatrical voice his love for the woman with no underpants. He even lays his head on her lap and says about his love to her "I will not beat around the bush." It might be over the top, but it works here.

Peggity Price (numerous Off Broadway appearances including Steel Magnolias and on Broadway in Last Night of Ballyhoo) is mirthful as the nosy upstairs neighbor.

The two cameo performances by Bay Area actors Jarion Monroe (Sex Habits of American Woman at the Magic) and Ken Ruta (very popular Bay Actor who was recently in Anna Christie at Center Rep) are priceless. Monroe is a real hoot of sexual frustration as the haughty government official. His blustering manner of bulging out his face and moving his mouth as if to mutter words is hilarious. Ken Ruta, who appears in a wonderful German outfit with spiked helmet to boot, plays the lascivious King to the hilt. It's a five minute role and he makes the most of it.

Director Jon Jory, who has been the artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre and Actors Theatre of Louisville, gives this production a great fast and slapstick edge that makes it a grand farce. Who would have thought the Germans could have been so hilarious?

Robert A. Dahlstrom has designed a wonderful German impressionist set that reminds me of the expressionistic German films of the '20s. The two-tiered apartment set is wonderfully out of kilter, with various crazy-angled doors and windows and overstated houses with drawing of characters looking out from windows.

The music of Peter Ekstrom at the beginning and during the change scenes is very reminiscent of the Kurt Weill '20s opera-musicals. The costumes of David Martin are caricatures of German cartoons of the era, especially the colorful King outfit. Mr. Ruta should demand to keep that outfit as part of his salary.

The Underpants will play at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose through July 18th. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com.

San Jose Rep will start its new season with George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara on September 4th.


Photo: Tim Fuller


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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