Monday, October 28, 2013

Theater Review: The Underpants -- Long Wharf

Steve Routman, Jeff McCarthy, 
Jenny Leona and Burke Moses. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Silly-Fun Farce from Steve Martin Pulls Up at Long Wharf
By Lauren Yarger
Crowds gather in hopes of catching a glimpse of the King as he passes by during a parade, but the real sight of the day ends up being a woman caught with her drawers down in The Underpants, a light-hearted farce by comedian Steve Martin.

The play, adapted from German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1911 farce Die Hose, is playing at Long Wharf Theater through Nov. 10, then will get a second run Jan. 9 –Feb. 9, 2014 at Hartford Stage which is co-presenting. Long Wharf’s Gordon Edelstein directs.

While stretching on tip-toe to get a better view of the king, Louise Maske (Jenny Leona)  loses her underpants -- and the respect of her uptight, disapproving husband, Theo (Jeff McCarthy), who fears the embarrassment could cost him his job. This is just one more in a long list of things his wife of just a year hasn’t done right, he complains while criticizing her housekeeping. With an order to have his wieners ready when he gets home, he storms out.

What she lacks in the way of esteem from her husband, who hasn’t touched her since their wedding night for fear they will conceive a child they can’t afford, however, Louise more than makes up for in the undying admiration from some gentlemen who got a glimpse of her underpants at the parade.

The first to show up at her door is handsome Frank Versati (Burke Moses who delightfully puts us in mind of Harvey Korman playing a smarmy leading man opposite Carol Burnett), a poet who wants to rent a room that the Manskes have for rent. The underpants incident has given him his muse and changed his world, he tells her, as he pledges his devotion. She agrees to rent him the room.

Unbeknownst to Louise, Theo also has rented the room to shy, nerdy Benjamin Cohen (Steve Routman), who insists he is not Jewish and that his name is spelled with a “K.” He too witnessed the underpants incident, and thanks to the tools of his barber’s trade – a quickly produced mirror while he was lying on the ground – he got quite an eyeful of what the underpants left uncovered and now he is smitten with Louise as well.

Theo decides they can share the room and orders his wife to take care of all the men’s needs….

Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor and confident Gertrude Deuter (Didi Conn) decides that Louise should have an affair and makes her friend a new set of underwear worthy of a seduction. The young wife discovers that she does have some physical cravings and welcomes Versati’s attentions. A couple of things get in the way of their romance, however, despite Gertrude’s agreeing to serve as watchdog for Theo’s arrival at home: Versati seems more interested in composing poems about loving Louise instead of doing anything about it, and Cohen vows to prevent anything from happening between the would-be lovers.

Things get even more complicated when the apartment gets rented again to oldtimer Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff), who thinks seeing the fallen underpants might only have been a hallucination. Theo’s interest in his wife also is rekindled when he realizes that all of the rent money he has collected could provide the means for him and his wife to have a baby after all….

All the elements of farce are here, including a silly story where “chaos ensues” and multiple doors (Lee Savage, design) with some nifty and effective staging on entrances through them by Edelstein. He keeps the pace quick and sharp – essentials for a successful farce.

Routman displays superior physical comedy skills and sounds a little like Wally Cox, which makes us chuckle even more. Leona manages to keep Louise likable and has wonderful rapport with Conn who enjoys playing the nosy neighbor indulging in a vicarious affair. And best of all, McCarthy manages, in intonation and delivery, to sound a lot like Steve Martin.

Martin’s skillful adaptation makes the tale modern, even though we know by the costumes and hair (Jess Goldstein and Charles LaPointe, design) that we are in the early 20th Century.

 “Sternheim’s play is ribald, self-referential, and quirky. I hope I have retained those elements and assured my place in heaven – I mean, served the playwright’s intentions,” Martin wrote in his introduction to the play.

For information about the show’s run at Hartford Stage: (860) 527-5151;

Catch The Underpants at Long Wharf’s mainstage theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, before they come down Nov. 10. Performance times vary. Tickets $54.50-$79.50:; (203) 787- 4282.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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