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Acting Their Asses Off
By Kathryn Ceceri

The Underpants
By Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin, directed by Bruce Jordan
Lake George Dinner Theatre, through Oct. 23

Steve Martin may be a wild and crazy guy, but his writings are often positively literary: He’s made both Cyrano de Bergerac and Silas Marner into contemporary movies. So despite the made-for-slapstick name, I was surprised to see Martin’s off-Broadway adaptation of a 1911 comedy by an iconoclastic German satirist on the bill at, of all places, a dinner theater. I think the audience was a little surprised, too: At the performance I attended, the mostly older tour-bus crowd seemed a little cowed by the show’s rapid stream of double entrendres and outright risque remarks. Martin has turned a sex farce about the bourgeoisie into a sexy farce about unexpected fame, and it makes for an interesting evening. And while the optional meal was not bad, the cast of The Underpants was superb, from the scenery-chewing roué to the engaging sad sack to the passive-aggressive hausfrau, to whom the garments of the title belong.

The Underpants is set in a stereotypically Bavarian flat, complete with half-timbered walls and a cuckoo clock. Louise Maske has put her civil-servant husband Theo in a dither because her knee-length knickers slid to the ground as she stretched to see the king pass by in a parade. It’s the talk of the neighborhood, Theo insists, though Louisa points out the whole incident lasted about two seconds.

“Haven’t you heard?” he asks her. “Time is relative: Two seconds with your underpants around your ankles is an eon.”

Nor is it likely to blow over soon, he adds: “Never underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie.”

Indeed, it’s true. Louisa’s little accident has spawned a rush of interest in the room the couple has for rent. Among the prospective tenants is the flamboyant poet Versati—“unpublished, and proud of it”—and the shabby barber Benjamin Cohen, who vows that if he can’t have Louisa, neither will Versati (“I’ll be your prophylactic!” he declares). So bored is Louisa that she actually takes her nosy upstairs neighbor Gertrude up on her offer of facilitating an affair with the poet, in exchange for all the juicy details.

Though many of the sentiments of The Underpants seem so modern it’s hard to tell if they’re Sternheim’s or Martin’s, the language of the play, as well as the set and the costumes, retain a distinctly period feel that both help and hurt its effectiveness. It helps because lines like “I’ll just slip in and out without you noticing” are all the more unexpected coming from the mouths of characters living in such a restricted, not-to-say uptight, time. But it hurts because the formal wording makes the actors’ delivery somewhat stilted. It’s hard to say whether this is something director Bruce Jordan could have, or should have, tried to avoid.

Still, the real asset of this production is its actors. Terry Rabine as the effusive Versati is a nonstop powerhouse of comic expression and gesture. As his nemesis, Cohen (who lets on that he’s dyed the foppish poet’s hair), Neil Akins turns a lovesick outcast from a slightly creepy character into a figure we come to love. Sarah Beth-Lee Williams as the frustrated Louisa conveys her dilemma perfectly, and Derek Straat as her prudish husband makes a convincing Teutonic bureaucrat. As Gertrude, Betty Ann Hunt seems to have breezed in from a sitcom (but this is classic TV Land material, albeit in long skirts). And in the small role of the third prospective tenant, Klinglehoff, Jim Ganser manages to get in a few killer lines with deadpan delivery.

Sternheim didn’t give his characters a happy ending, but Martin does. And ultimately, it is likable characters and top-rate actors that keep The Underpants from falling down. With more Martin on the horizon (Picasso at the Lapin Agile is coming to Home Made Theater in February), it’s worth the trip north to catch a sample of the Jerk’s other incarnation: international man of letters.

Being Nothingness

An American Revolution
By Jay Parini, directed by Eric Peterson
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., Sept. 11

At various times I have left Oldcastle feeling disappointed, bored, angry and even happy, but this is the first time I just felt sad. Eric Peterson’s intention, to work with authors on new works, is laudable, and he must have felt he had a good prospect in author Jay Parini, who is well established as an author of literary biographies, essays, reviews, novels and poems. An American Revolution is his first play, however, and the only revolution in the dull piece is that of the turntable set. I don’t know what Peterson and his company could have done with it, except leave it unproduced.

Described by Parini in various interviews as a black comedy with aspects of farce, the play bears no resemblance to either of those genres and instead comes across more as a tract on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with emphasis on the later. Parini’s stated playwright models are Tom Stoppard, George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward, but he has not a jot of their wit or ability to couch social satire and philosophy in theater.

Parini’s protagonist is 31-year-old Beth Anderson, who has never quite recovered from a breakdown following an affair she had with a married Smith College professor, with whom she was working on her thesis on Sartre. Since, she has lived in rural Vermont with her parents, Ted and Helen. As the play opens, the insufferable Helen has just died from liver cancer. That, unfortunately, doesn’t keep Helen off the stage, and she flits on and off as a ghost dispensing advice to Beth, who is trying to wean herself from dependence on pills and parents. Hence, the play’s the overstated title.

Part of Beth’s self-therapy lies in periodic escapes to a nearby family cabin where she tries to work on her thesis. On the day the play opens, however, there is an unexpected, unknown and supposedly uninvited guest, Jankowitz, in the cabin. As Jankowitz knows far too much about Beth’s life and her work on Sartre, it soon becomes obvious to the viewer (even if it isn’t to the author) that the interloper is merely a figment of Beth’s imagination. Created to help her define and express herself, Jankowitz also represents her id and stands as a contrast to the local pastor, Jim Lomax, who has unrequited designs on her.

The play involves a fair amount of discourse about existentialism, and it posits Sartre’s idea that in a world that seems absurd, one has to create one’s own meaning. This is the action of the play for Beth, but it remains ensconced in the script as an idea that is more intellectually comprehended than viscerally felt.

Although I have trouble envisioning him taking to the woods with his rifle, Carleton Carpenter is an amiable Ted and provides a needed foundation for Beth with his earnest love. Moreover, Carpenter’s well-hewn delivery provides the dialogue with needed animation. Richard Howe, in the underwritten role of the pastor, is believable and an appropriate mismatch for Beth.

The ghosts (or figments) hark back to Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but while they may be spirited, the effect is hardly blithe. This is especially true of Janis Young’s Helen, who jumps and scurries about in almost constant motion that too often upstages the more subtle work being done elsewhere on stage. Michael Nichols is more effective as Jankowitz, but he seems to be approaching the role from diverse perspectives. At various times he is satyr-like, fey, arch and even effeminate. Perhaps all these qualities are intended as projections from Beth, but the intention is unclear.

As Beth, Sophia Garder admirably rises to the demands of the role and gives far more than she gets from the playwright, who seems more content at playing guessing games than crafting an emotional experience. Indeed, it is Garder’s utterly genuine performance that grounds both the production and our interest in it. There is a classically tragic beauty in Garder’s haunted and haunting presence, and she sustains Beth’s angst so remarkably well that her gradual unshackling and reintroduction to life is dramatic beyond the means of the play. What a Medea or Electra she could be.

Peterson stages matters as well as one could hope. Again, I can’t see what else he could hope to liberate from Parini, who claims that the play is a comedy. The source of his amusement escapes me as completely as does his ability to fashion a satisfying climax or even a denouement that signals the play has ended.

Kenneth Mooney provides an appealing rustic set, which Michael Giannitti properly chills with late winter lighting. N.B. Aldritch’s sound design gently transports us into Beth’s state of mind, while Hope Barry’s costumes nicely assist in Beth’s transition, particularly a red dress that Garber graciously flatters.

Sadly, however, it is ultimately all for naught.

—Ralph Hammann

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