Their Asses Off
Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin, directed by Bruce
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.
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.
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the prospective tenants is the flamboyant poet Versati—“unpublished,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.
Jay Parini, directed by Eric Peterson
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
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
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
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
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
Sadly, however, it is ultimately all for naught.