Steve Martin rescued an old German play called Die Hose written by Carl Sternheim in 1910, dusted it off, adapted it for the American Stage and renamed it The Underpants. It had a four-week run Off-Broadway and has been staged many more times at theatres and universities across America, as well as productions in Australia, Hong Kong and New Delhi.
The Underpants, now playing at Northside Theatre Company, is a farce that takes aim at the German culture of the time hitting targets like conformity, rigidity, mindless obedience and the divergent sexual roles of men and women. There are even a few swipes at Belle Époque anti-Semitism. Plenty of good fodder there to feed a laugh-hungry audience.
Louisa Maske (utterly charming, perfectly cast Lorie Goulart) causes consternation in her home and the neighborhood when, while watching a royal parade and for an inexplicable reason, her bloomer-like underpants drop down around her ankles as she stands on tippy-toes to wave at the King exposing her feminine glory to nearby onlookers. How this happened or why is a mystery. Her domineering, apparatchik husband, Theo (Bret-Jordan), is furious. He fears he will lose his job as a clerk in the royal service if word gets back to the King. Theo is a Teutonically-rigid, doggedly-precise, domineering man who has little obvious regard for his lovely wife of one year. In fact, he seems intimidated by her sexuality.
Things heat up when a couple of gob-smacked men who have glimpsed Louisa from below burst into the Maske apartment wanting to obtain the room that Theo intends to rent to bring in more money. What they want, of course, is easy access to the toothsome beauty. A poet, Frank Versati (Steve Shapiro), waxes lyric in his poetic passion for Louisa. A barber (Robyn Gray), a hypochondriac named Cohen, wants to protect Louisa from the amorous scribbler. The upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Deuter (Kezia Radke), a single woman, encourages Louisa to indulge in an affair so she can have a vicarious thrill.
Through all of this the repressed Louisa begins to emerge and by play’s end, the question of the dropped drawers becomes a delightful question mark.
The cast of The Underpants is quite competent. If there is a problem, it is one of pace. Farce demands split-second timing, and though this play is not a door-slamming farce like Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (1907), it does need quickly timed entrances and exits and quick pick-up of cues. This is not to say faster talking. There is a tendency among some players, from time to time, to speed through their speeches, rattling off the words by rote. Bite the cues by all means, then reveal the thoughts that give life to the words. That said, this production of The Underpants is entertaining and, at the performance I attended, very well received by the audience.
The production looks good with a fine set by Orlando & King Productions and lighting by Jeff Swan. Period costuming by Eileen Hansen is delightful.
The Underpants runs through July 12 at the Olinder Theatre, 848 E. William Street, San Jose.