General 2-9-2007

A Theater Full of Familiar Faces

"The Underpants" at the Playground in Duluth is a charming farce, in director Pat Castellano's version. You've got just a couple more chances to see it.


Steve Martin’s The Underpants is a translation, and a relaxed-fit version, of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1910 play Die Hosen. Sternheim’s piece was, by all accounts, a more teeth-bared satire on German bourgeois conventions and prejudices (Sternheim was Jewish, and there are many digs at both goy and Jewish anti-Semitism. Think a kinder Borat). Martin’s take, instead, is lightly witty, with lots of quick-flying wordplay, and depends, for its extended final 20-minute punchline, on an hour’s slow build of character-creating drama.

Those characters are well cast. In true Duluth style, you get the thing a lot better if you know the actors. But that’s not hard: several are public figures. City Councilman Russ Stover plays Benjamin Cohen; Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson plays the Kaiser, in a tasty cameo at the finale. Jean Sramek, well known here from Colder by the Lake and other groups, plays Gertrude Deuter, the upstairs Best Girlfriend and temptress of the virtuous but careless Louise Maske (Minden Anderson)—who has lost the underpants in question just before the start of the play.

As it opens, Theo Maske (Nathan St. Germaine) and Louise are squabbling. Louise has dropped her panties by accident as she was craning to see the king in a neighborhood parade. Theo is a rigid small bureaucrat ( “I can’t change my mind because then I’d have nothing to think!” he cries). He’s horrified at Louise’s public gaffe and terrified of losing his job as a consequence.

It comes out later, in exchanges between Gertrude and Louise, that there’s been no sex in the Maske household since their marriage a year ago, because Theo thinks they cannot afford a baby.

The public loss of the underpants brings several suitors for Louise’s . . . well, not her hand (Frank Versat the dark poet, played by Cody Ryder; Benjamin Cohen the jealous voyeur, played by Russ Stover; Klinglehoff the puritanical academic, played by Jim Listerud). They all appear as potential tenants, wishing to rent the Maskes’ spare room. Thrifty Theo subdivides the room and provides potential lovers for Louise, much to voyeur Gertrude’s delight. All prove unable to actually perform the desired act, instead grinding out a lot of hackneyed romantic hoohaw, satirizing the German romantic poetic sensibility and some standard German anti-Semitism (Cohen presents himself as “Kohen—with a K” in order to rent the room).

All of this setup for eventual hijinks means that the play starts slowly. But the director (Pat Castellano) has understood her actors well. She uses their real natures with great sensitivity and wit to construct an ensemble that you really feel for—despite their absurdity, these are real people laboring to live in a world that keeps trying to turn them into cardboard. So when the farce is fully loaded, tripped, and begins to spin, splattering the audience with zingers, double-entendres, and sight gags, the laughs that come are genuine and deep.

If you’re a fan of Martin’s humanistic comedy (think Roxanne or LA Story) you’ll love this play. If you like your satire more biting, edgier, you won’t. The Underpants won’t fit everybody, but on its own terms, and in its own place, it works well.

The Underpants is at the Playground, the Duluth Playhouse’s black-box performance space, in the Tech Village building at Lake and Superior in Duluth, through February 9. Tickets $10 at the door.