Syracuse Stage pulls off Steve Martin’s ‘Underpants’
The comedian’s rapid-fire witticisms leave the audience little time to breathe before the next joke
The word “underpants” may suggest many things. It can be the boring utilitarian item that one wears every day, the washing of which is a pedestrian part of every relationship (so much so that hanging stockings and panties in the bathroom following laundering is often used in film and TV as a code for the loss of romance that comes with familiarity). Yet underpants can also represent a scintillating, ardor-producing article of clothing — a scrap of cloth that with a mere glimpse may drive an admirer wild with desire.
Steve Martin’s The Underpants turns this mundane garment into comic gold through a well-delivered fast-paced hilariously ribald script, over-the-top physically comedic acting and carefully choreographed pieces that in this Syracuse Stage season-opening production maintains the frenetic pacing of a classic screwball comedy.
As the audience filed into John D. Archbold theatre on Friday evening, Sound Designer Sarah Pickett’s jangly brassy sounds coming through the loud speaker provided an appropriate frame of mind with which to appreciate this play. The highly stylized brass band instrumentation, coupled with a carnivalesque calliope, sounded like a cross between a demented circus and a cabaret.
Like the music, William Bloodgood’s set design likewise forces the viewer to recognize that all will not be as it seems. Dominating center stage is an enormous painting of a man partially dressed in military garb. At his top we see a military uniform complete with medals, while his bottom reveals only underpants, hosiery and garters. The man lies languidly on a couch of red and gold, his hands resting sensually on a German military helmet.
Behind this absurd painting is a stage design that lightly references the German expressionist aesthetic of Carl Sternheim’s original play (Martin based The Underpants on Sternheim’s 1911 expressionistic comedy, Die Hose). The set at first appears a fairly realist representation of a lower middle class home, set underneath and within an arched and lighted proscenium. The effect suggests an aura of artificiality, with the set’s sharp angles distorted against the smooth arch of the proscenium. The theatrical lights prioritize performativity over suspension of disbelief.
The storyline, set in 1910 Dusseldorf, follows a brief moment in the lives of a respectable middle-class German civil servant and his wife, the Maskes. Louise, the young wife played with an endearing naiveté by Marianna McClellan who will slowly shifts into self-confidant swagger, is stifled in a passionless marriage with her overbearingly proper husband Theo — whose imposing physicality and cluelessness is portrayed with hilarity by Mark David Watson. Theo manages to strike a perfect balance with which the audience may laugh at the absurdity of his positions without finding him unsympathetic.
The Maskes’ world is thrown into disarray by the events following a local royal parade. While rising to her tiptoes to see the king, Louise’s underpants fall down. This starts the plot unfolding to a conclusion wherein their marriage is tested, reignited and fundamentally changed.
For two local men at the parade who witnessed the “wardrobe malfunction,” the sight of Louise with her panties wrapped around her ankles fills them with lust and desire. The men rent a room from the Maskes in the hope of developing a relationship with Louise.
The first of these is Versati, a poet. Daniel Passer’s character wears his educated artistic sensibilities with an absurdly foppish affectation that draws laughter from the audience at every entrance. To Louise, the insipid lines of romantic poetry he spouts with heartfelt sincerity, along with his colorful costume, are a welcome change from Theo’s drab orations on duty as a civil servant, as well as his staidly conservative tweed suit.
Louise melts under the spell of Versati and soon begins to respond to his romantic and sexual attention. Her awakened desire is further flamed by Gertrude — a meddlesome upstairs neighbor portrayed with comically exaggerated facial expression by Sabrina Profitt. After convincing Louise to embark upon an affair with Versati so that she may experience the vicarious thrills of the sexual exploits, Gertrude offers to run interference to ensure that Theo does not learn of the tryst.
The scenes between McClellan’s Louise and Profitt’s Gertrude have a delicious silliness to them, as the two become increasingly excited by the prospect of letting loose their buttoned-down sexual desires. Without veering into eroticism or turning their characters into objects of ridicule, the two actors allow the audience to see the absurdity of sex and romance when viewed from the outside.
Benjamin Cohen, the other boarder — played by Michael Brian Dunn as an early-19th century version of Woody Allen (complete with hypochondria and sexual angst) — is a Jewish barber passing himself off as a Christian. Like Versati, Cohen wants to be close to Louise, but only to act as a prophylactic (his own words) between Louise and Versati.
Though his performance channels Allen’s vocal tics and mannerisms, Dunn’s comedic talents include a genuine gift for slapstick, pratfall and burlesque stage comedy. During one standout scene in which Cohen is drugged with a sleeping potion, Dunn is more Jerry Lewis than Woody Allen as he attempts, with hysterical effect, to walk to his bedroom with legs of rubber.
Once the farcical seduction plot is set in motion it careens along at breakneck pace, with only Theo unaware of the machinations about his wife’s sexuality.
Steve Martin’s script is a perfect marriage of physical comedy and rapid-fire witticism. In this case, the witticism takes the form of virtual non-stop double entendre, delivered so quickly that the audience begins laughing at the next joke before finishing the last.
The actors in this troupe manage to keep up with this machine gun dialogue without missing a beat, all the while maintaining (if not exaggerating) their comical German, Italian, and Yiddish accents. The pace and physical nature of this ensemble’s performance is so intense I was amazed that they managed to stave off exhaustion. There was one line miscue late in the show, but that was so minor, so quick, and covered up by all the actors with such professional aplomb I wondered whether I had really heard the stumble. I hope the actors can maintain the physical and mental strain throughout the run of the show. It must be exhausting as there is never a down moment.
Even the moments of set and scene change are high-energy moments under Bill Fennelly’s direction and Andrea Leigh-Smith’s choreography. Rather than dim the lights, draw the curtain or otherwise provide a respite, dancers dressed as beer hall girls and deck crew dressed in lederhosen dance onto stage to raucous music and clapping. Along with the actors, they manipulate the props and rearrange the set by means of tossing items around stage while clapping and dancing energetically. The result is the fastest 110-minutes you’re likely to experience in a theatrical performance.
Despite the soreness in my cheeks from laughing and smiling, I found myself wishing the play had done something a bit more with its comedy. The original playwright was well known for the ways in which he used comedy to skewer the social mores of his time. Steve Martin’s goals are a bit more modest. His humor, despite its naughtiness, has a sweetness to it that resists social critique.
If the play has a theme, it’s the way in which couples (but most specifically men) cannot seem to reconcile the mundane realities of marriage with the mystery and romanticism that fuels marital desire. Louise and Theo’s desire for each other — enacted in an uproarious montage of sexual acts throughout their house near the conclusion of the play — is unleashed only after having been rekindled outside the marriage.
Even the desires of Versati and Cohen are shown as incomplete. Versati resists consummating his love affair, as his desire is that of the poet and muse: He wants to capture the love and desire he feels in writing, not expend it in action. Cohen’s desire is to play the role of protector to Louise’s idealized sexuality. When played against Theo’s asexualized paternalism, one wonders how masculinity can ever reconcile itself to the lived reality of sexuality — a reality that is often complicated, confusing and even silly.
Syracuse Stage has started the 2015-2016 season off with a bang. Their production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants will keep you laughing so hard you may miss the complex issues about sex it begins to unpack. Yet these issues are undoubtedly important to us today. Given that society’s attempts to explore sex often vacillates between the prurient and the sensational, it’s refreshing to see a work of art assert the silliness of it all.
What: The Underpants, adapted by Steve Martin from Die Hose by Carl Sternheim
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, October 23, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through November 8, 2015
Length: About 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets: Adults $30-$48, 18 and under $18; 40 and under $30-$38; senior discounts all performances except Fri./Sat. P.M
Call: 315-443-3275 or syracusestage.org
Family guide: Suggestive humor, explicit language, sexual reference, simulated sexual activity, not suitable for children under 13