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Vol. LXIII, No. 32
 
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
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Music/Theater

Steve Martin Adaptation of 1911 Farce Wraps Up PST Season; “The Underpants” Features Sex, Celebrity, and Gender Battles

Donald Gilpin

Sex, lies and lingerie! The titillating title provides a reliable clue to what you’re in for, as does the reputation of “wild and crazy guy” Steve Martin, famous actor, writer, frequent Saturday Night Live host and the adaptor of this hundred-year-old German comedy.

The Underpants, currently playing at Princeton Summer Theater (PST), certainly contains a smattering of social commentary — on sexism and gender roles, on our fascination with fame and on the power of sex as a motivating force in the individual and society — but the great power of this play lies in its bawdy humor. Director Shawn Fennell and his PST company deliver that humor with admirable skill and intelligence in this delightful finale to an outstanding 2009 season.

As pretty young housewife Louise was standing on a bench on her tiptoes, trying to see the king passing by in a procession, her underpants fell down! Her puritanical husband Theo is furious that he will be blamed, fired from his job as a government clerk, and ruined by the scandal. Lured by the sight of Louise with her underpants around her ankles, Versati, an impassioned poet, and Cohen, a sickly, philosophical Jewish barber, soon appear at Theo and Louise’s apartment, seeking to rent a room. The plot unfolds from there, as the boarders attempt to seduce Louise, Louise and her nosy neighbor Gertrude plot their own intrigues, and the dimwitted Theo loudly and ineffectually tries to assert his masculine authority. Witty repartee, puns, and sex jokes fly, as the larger-than-life characters and their wacky behaviors speed the action from scene to scene.

The Underpants is Mr. Martin’s 2002 adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1911 comedy, the first of a six-play cycle Comedies From the Heroic Life of the Middle Class, showing influences from Molière and capturing more than a taste of the farces of Sternheim’s French contemporary Georges Feydeau. Later in the twentieth century Noël Coward’s comedies of manners and Eugene Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd would echo the spirit of Sternheim’s sharp, funny dialogue, off-the-wall one-liners and preposterous situations. Mr. Martin’s adaptation ratchets up the madcap hilarity.

As Mr. Fennell, Princeton University senior, points out in his program notes, Sternheim undoubtedly had some larger issues on his plate in the original play, Die Hose. Strains of anti-Semitism in the years leading up to the rise of Nazism in Germany, apparent in Theo’s comments and Cohen’s attempts to hide his Jewish heritage; the portrayal of Theo as the quintessential bourgeois in contrast with the aristocrat Versati and the lower class Cohen; and the intellectual name-dropping of Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud. and Einstein all provide thought-provoking material.

There are repeated allusions to sightings of the Loch Ness monster, to the power of the imagination and lies, references to appearances and realities, what’s on the surface and what’s underneath (It’s no coincidence that the protagonists’ last name is “Maske,” the German word for “mask.”) — and, of course, there’s the underpants motif. The major concerns of Mr. Martin and his larger-than-life characters, however, are hardly subtle.

Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s “The Underpants,” runs from August 13-16, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call (609) 258-7062 for information.

There’s sexual desire, which drives the plot. There’s the allure and fear of fame, as Louise basks in her celebrity and Theo cringes in horror. And there’s the gender politics, as Theo asserts the sexist male tradition and Louise ventures forth through disappointment with her traditional marriage, disillusionment with the dream of romance, and the thrills of sudden celebrity to eventually achieve a certain knowledge, wisdom, and power in her world.

The Princeton Summer Theater ensemble of seven embraces this challenging material with style and energy. The characters and situations here are not without their grounding in the real world, but the farcical tone calls for caricature rather than realism.

Aaron Strand as Versati and Billy Hepfinger as Theo, with the two most extreme roles here, prove most adept at capturing the cartoon-like spirit of this crazy world.

Mr. Hepfinger’s Theo is the consummate hidebound, self-centered bureaucrat. With buzz cut, high collar, suspenders, and bowler hat, he attempts to bully his wife and everybody else, but ultimately proves more ridiculous than threatening. “You are much too attractive for a man in my position,” he warns Louise. “Your breasts, your legs, they draw the eyes. My job and your appearance do not go together. Everyone notices you. And it’s your fault …. The woman’s fault always …. What are breasts? Harmless utilitarian lumps of flesh. But you squeeze them into a sweater and mountains move …. Flesh speaks to men from under coats, under caftans, under furs, from igloos. There’s always a small voice calling: I am here.” And Mr. Hepfinger masters the challenge of playing the silliness with the greatest conviction and seriousness.

A worthy foil to Theo, Strand’s Versati, with gymnastic dexterity, embraces the physical and verbal comedy at every juncture. Slithering on and off stage in his seductive smoothness, waxing poetic in his romantic exhortations, crawling on one knee in pursuit of Louise, he’s all talk, and plenty of action too, just not the sort of sexual action Louise is looking for. Sexual double entendres and silliness abound as he follows his romantic quest. “Think of (your husband)” he urges Louise, “as a necessary part of the triangle. You are the flint, I am the fire, and he is the wet piece of wood.”

As Louise, the central figure of the play, Ariel Sibert is credible and in character, though more subdued than her male counterparts. She is the straight, sympathetic character amidst the eccentric assortment surrounding her, but, in keeping with the spirit of the show, a bit more expression from Ms. Sibert, especially when her own passions become aroused, would bring an extra shot of adrenalin to the proceedings.

Max Rosmarin creates a distinctly quirky Cohen, providing sharp humor in his lusts, his hypochondria and his perceptive wit, far beyond the comprehension of the smug Theo. As the officious, high-spirited, and comical Gertrude, Sara-Ashley Bischoff injects a sparkling dose of energy and provides an ally, a cheerleader, and a confidante for Louise. Ms. Bischoff’s Gertrude is vivid in character, but occasionally needs clearer diction to bring across her accented, rapid-fire lines.

Tyler Crosby as Klinglehoff introduces, in the last act, yet another idiosyncratic and extremely amusing character, and Patrick Harvey makes a startling dramatic appearance in a cameo role in the last scene to bring the absurdities to a fittingly wild and absurd culmination.

Allen Grimm’s unit set, representing the Maske’s apartment, is appropriately askew, with raked platforms on three different levels and a Magritte-like window looking out into blue sky on the top level. Period costumes by Ms. Sibert and Maggie Tominey and sound by Mitch Frank also provide excellent complements to the proceedings.

Over the past two months, Princeton Summer Theater has consistently delivered first-rate theater and attracted large, enthusiastic audiences. Following highly acclaimed productions of Urinetown, The Glass Menagerie and No Time for Comedy, The Underpants again sets impressive standards for acting, staging and sheer entertainment.

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