The FSU/Asolo Conservatory production of The Underpants reveals some hidden layers.
By Kay Kipling
Some foreign exports are slower to arrive on our shores than others; while we’ve been watching French and British farces onstage here for decades, it took Steve Martin’s adaptation to bring to our attention the 1911 German play by Carl Sternheim which Martin has dubbed The Underpants (now onstage at the Cook Theatre in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production). And it took a little bit of updating it to contemporary tastes, with some obviously Martin double entendres, to make it a success.
Sternheim was poking some sharp fun at the attitudes of the bourgeoisie with his original play, which centers on a staid bureaucrat, Theo (Brent Bateman), who becomes hysterical after a brief incident in which his younger wife (Heather Kelley) accidentally drops her underpants at a parade during which the Kaiser is passing by. “I’m a government clerk, I blend in,” he shouts at her, annoyed that her own sexuality could present an obstacle to his petty career. He’s even worried that as word gets around, they won’t be able to rent the room they have available, and he’s desperate for the money. But, surprise, surprise, quite the contrary happens: Not one but two renters show up, both having witnessed the underpants fiasco and been drawn to Louise and her anatomy.
One of the renters is a flowery poet-lover (Dolph Paulsen), with whom Louise, egged on by nosy upstairs neighbor Gertrude (Michelle Trachtenberg) hopes to have an affair. The other is a sickly, rather miserable little man named Cohen (he says it’s spelled with a “K” to disguise his Jewish origins), who’s determined to prevent any other man from having Louise if he can’t have her himself. Meanwhile, the bluff and apparently blind husband is more concerned with staying physically fit (a nod to the later Nazi obsession with the master race) than his wife’s potential for cuckolding him.
It’s a good enough setup, and the Conservatory cast plays their roles well, most notably Bateman as Theo, Kelley as the dominated wife who turns the tables, and David Yearta as Cohen. But The Underpants does not offer the sort of laugh-a-minute pace you might be more familiar with from bedroom farce. It’s a little different animal—a 100-year-old German satire that in today’s version carries some resonances its original playwright couldn’t have predicted.
The Underpants continues through May 4; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.