THE UNDERPANTSby Steve Martin
Artistic Director Carol M. Rice
Theo Maske—Brian Hoffman
Louise Maske—Jenny Wood
Gertrude Deuter -- Penny Elaine
Frank Versati-- Weston Loy
Benjamin Cohen-- Russell Sims
The King — Anthony Magee
Director— Janette Oswald
Stage Manager—Jennifer Patton
Costume Designer—Karen Askew
Lighting Designer—Kenneth Hall
Set Designer — Janette Oswald
Properties Designer—Penny Elaine
Sound Designer — Robbi Holman
Reviewed Performance: 8/11/2022
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Adapted by Steve Martin (yes, THAT Steve Martin, he of the wild-and-crazy-guy SNL fame) from a German satire, this play is full of laughs and sexual innuendo. Both my theatre companion and I had huge grins on our faces during the show and found it delightfully entertaining. There are oodles of laugh-out-loud bits, as the excellent comedic actors toss off naughty phrases with a wink. “I’ll slip in and out without you knowing it.” Physical comedy abounds as well, more on that in a moment.
Underlying all the fun lines, “In a world of jam, you are a marmalade,” and silly jokes (this is a Steve Martin script, after all, of course there are going to be silly jokes), the satire holds strong. Martin is skewering the fleeting finger of fame in this play, showing us how ridiculous it is to be famous for something trivial. In this instance, it is a wife whose underpants fall down as the King of Germany passes by in a parade. Although an accident, and quickly solved by Louise, the drop of the undies has been seen. The result of this titillating glimpse has made Louise into a sexual icon for several men of the town; a woman to be desired, wooed, and won, or protected from harm. Just a day or so later, however, the bloom is off the rose and the sword back in its sheath, so to speak, and Louise experiences the let-down of not being famous anymore.
Her husband, Theo, is a “wet piece of wood,” a government clerk who is most upset by his wife’s accident. He fears the incident will lose him his job and blames Louise for everything. Brian Hoffman plays this off with aplomb. As awful as some of the things he says to Louise are, underneath it rings the earnestness of a man in 1910 Dusseldorf who just wants to pay his bills, and perhaps earn enough money so that he and his wife can have a child. Hoffman brings delight to a role that could have been simply thuddingly sexist. His comic timing is impeccable, as is his ability to let streams of words roll off his tongue. He is the classic cuckold of farce, who thinks himself the smartest person in the room, while elaborate capers happen when his back is turned. Hoffman’s performance was excellent.
His wife, Louise, is a pert young thing. In her hair and makeup, actress Jenny Wood strongly resembles the “It Girl” of a slightly later time period, Clara Bow, who was no stranger to scandal. Louisa’s transformation from an innocent housewife who hasn’t had any sex since the honeymoon to a siren who can’t wait to have a tryst is taken step by step without rushing by Wood. It is a confident performance that grounds the surrounding silliness. We cheer her on as she finds new confidence as a woman and are sad for her when she sighs that “my fame is gone.” Wood has the trick of pretending to be demure and hot to trot at the same time. She is a pleasure to watch as she deals with the crazed men who are flinging themselves at her.
Louise tiptoes through the farcical minefields created by both her hopeful suitors and her husband’s demands and suspicions with the help of her nosy next-door neighbor, Gertrude, played with a barely tamped-down, panting desire to perfection by Penny Elaine, who is an accomplished physical comedy actress. Her silent bits are screamingly funny. Elaine has a commanding stage presence. You simply can’t take your eyes off of her as you wait to see what delicious bit she serves up next. Her voice ranges up and down the scale as she tries to live vicariously through Louise’s escapades, even making her some scandalous new underwear that is sure to drive her lovers wild. We enjoy every moment she is onstage.
Louise’s suitors have a field day with their roles. Weston Loy plays Versati as a verbose poet who is far more in love with the idea of love than actually doing the deed. He fairly reeks of scented hair oil and slimy charm. His enthusiastic, windy declarations are more than enough to have Louise panting to get into bed with him. Loy has terrific comic instincts. Even though his character is the most flamboyant of the cast, he plays it with a knowing twinkle in his eye and keeps things just this side of overdone.
For me, Russell Sims’ nebbish Cohen was a highlight performance. With Chaplin-esque pathos, Sims wins our hearts with his kind-hearted, odd-duck role. Pale, wan, sickly, Cohen is in love with Louise as a would-be protector, even though he seems a sad sack who is hardly up for the task. “That’s Cohen with a ‘K’,” he blurts in the face of the suspicion of the stolid Germans in the room. Sims fills every moment that he is onstage with precise, quiet bits of comedy that work within the louder construct of this piece. His petting of his scarf after Louise has touched it is tender and perfect.
The slow, ponderous gait of ultra-serious, elderly, black-clad Klinglehoff introduces us to a third would-be lover for Louise, although he vehemently denies it. Eric Levy is at ease both querulously pontificating and taking his time crossing the stage with his cane. We laugh for the entire long cross, so completely does he inhabit his odd persona. I won’t spoil the fun, but Levy has one of the funniest lines in the play, and I could swear we were laughing for a full minute straight after he delivered it. There is an additional suitor who has an eye to see Louise in her underpants in the final moments of the show. The King himself is smitten. Anthony Magee manages the winks and double-entendres of this tiny role to perfection and has one of the best usages of a prop in the entire play.
Costuming by Karen Askew was excellent. From her too-big suits swamping Mr. Cohen, to the plummy purple splendor of cocky Versati’s outfits and the pointy-helmet and full-dress regalia of the King, the costumes reflected each person’s character. The women’s dresses (and their underwear) were perfectly functional for the play while still keeping in the period. Ms. Askew also worked with color palates for each of the characters, telling us who they were by the blandness or brightness of the fabrics.
Lights by Kenneth Hall were a warm mix that kept our attention where it needed to be but didn’t intrude or slop over into the audience. I know that sounds simplistic, but it was an excellent design in what could be a challenging space to light. Sound by Robbi Holman hit the 1910 mark with a perfectly picked list of jaunty piano ditties along with some good old-fashioned Ragtime.
Period farce can be a difficult tone to get right, but this cast has been guided brilliantly through any pitfalls by director Janette Oswald. Her choice to use heavy makeup such as was used during the gaslamp-lit stages and silent movies of the era inspired her. Oswald’s staging is brisk and keeps things moving on the simple, yet charming set she designed. Everything has a flat quality to it, hinting that we shouldn’t take anything we see on the stage too seriously. Surely one of her notes to her actors was to “have fun,” as both they and we do during this wonderful, odd little comedy.
Do yourself and a friend a favor and see this show. I can assure you your cheeks will hurt from laughing and smiling for two hours straight. Easy parking, too.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.roverdramawerks.com