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Carl Sternheim, German playwright and satirist, whose works involved the scandalous side of early twentieth century mores, was himself a man who had a hard time conforming to such mores. Married and divorced three times, he ended his life living with a fourth woman that he never bothered to marry. While still popular in Germany, Sternheim's plays are rarely produced in the rest of the world. One exception is The Underpants, a farce about a young German woman whose wardrobe malfunction causes her all sorts of tribulation. This play has been adapted and rewritten by comedian Steve Martin, and has enjoyed a mild sensation in the English-speaking theatre world. The play, and Sternheim's views on married life in the German middle classes, is currently underway at Theatre in the Park.
Set in a large town in Germany, The Underpants focuses on the harried days of young Louise Maske (Diana Cameron McQueen), whose visit to view the King's Parade is sullied by a brief but embarrassing moment when her underpants fall to the ground. She immediately retrieves them, but the incident "goes viral," as it were, and spreads rapidly across town. By evening, the whole town is talking. This is where the play picks up: Louise is nervously awaiting her husband's return from his job as an Assistant Clerk in the German government. She prays that he hasn't heard but no such luck. Theo (David Bankert) is furious. Immediately he accosts Louise, and no amount of explanation can assuage him.
The argument is overheard by the couple's upstairs neighbor, Gertrude (Sandi Sullivan), whose nature and the thin walls allow her to see and hear everything that goes on in the building. A "spinster" of 42, Gertrude makes all her entrances and exits via a living room window, through which she enters after descending from above by way of the fire escape.
As a family of the German middle classes, Theo and Louise Maske enjoy his "title" as a bureaucrat, but must survive on his less-than-stellar paycheck. Thus the couple takes in boarders. The room in their house is up for rent; there's a sign in the window. After their argument, Theo storms out, and while he is gone, a man arrives who is a potential lodger, Frank Versati (Jonathan King). He's a poet who, though unpublished, considers himself to be on the rise. After a brief interlude, Louise gives him a promise to let him the room, and he leaves to assemble his things. Theo returns, but brings with him another lodger, Benjamin Cohen (Larry Evans), to whom Theo has promised the room. Not a problem; times being what they are, the Maskes can ill afford to deny themselves the possibility of double rent. Theo divides the room, and rents to both lodgers. Problem solved; all's well.
Well, not so much. Both men have come to the Maske household in search of the lovely young lady whose panties fell to earth at the King's Parade. They are both thoroughly smitten, and desire Louise arduously. Versati woos her openly, but Cohen, a barber, is not at all what you would call a ladies' man. He wants Louise badly, but, knowing his own limitations, decides to stay and keep an eye on Versati, who stands a good chance of compromising Louise's virtue. Whew! And this is just the first scene!
The play is thoroughly Louise's; she parries all the attention on her dexterously, and despite the men's best efforts, Louise survives. The men fare far less virtuously.
McQueen controlled the play nicely with her character's mercurial changes based on who is in the room with her. She withered Cohen with a look, but seemed putty in the hands of Versati, a blatant ladies' man.
The play is very physical. There is a lot of tomfoolery going on and every one of the characters must be played by an acrobatic actor. The character who goes through the most, however, is poor Cohen. Evans gave Cohen just enough of the poor underdog tone to make him the most empathetic of all these men.
The cast's calisthenics were performed on a lovely turn-of-the-last-century apartment set, complete with working country kitchen, authentic wood stove, and icebox. Designed by Thomas Mauney, this set was perfect for the rough-and-tumble that took place there.
Ira David Wood IV directed The Underpants with an understanding of the tricks of the farce trade: there must be plenty of sight gags, innuendo, and double entendre. They were hilarious and gave McQueen and her company a wide range of expression. We were captivated with the early-20th century costumes by Shawn Stewart-Larson, and thoroughly entertained by this bone-headed farce. If you enjoy your humor with a little ribald flavor, then The Underpants is your cup of tea.
The Underpants continues through Sunday, February 21. For more details on this production; please view the sidebar.