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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In his ingenious comic invention Sternheim has his heroine, the pretty young wife of a petty German bureaucrat, attend a royal parade in the town square. At the very moment that the Kaiser is passing by her eponymous garment comes loose and drops around her ankles revealing just enough of her feminine charms to causing considerable heavy breathing and tongue wagging. The farce is propelled forward by repercussions from that incident.
Despite many productions abroad, The Underpants, has been neglected in this country for lack of good English translations, a situation now remedied by the multi-talented Steve Martin who has added his own comic and contemporary vision to Sternheim's satire for the latest in Classic Stage Company's "Re-Imagining The Classics" series. This new adaptation is chockfull of pure Martin touches which sharpen the satiric edge and timeliness of Sternheim's deliciously demented plot. Add Barry Edelstein's light-hearted, never a dull moment direction, a cast without a weak link and the result is a tour-de farce.
The town square mishap is never actually seen, except by way of a marvelous stage metaphor, a three-sided drop curtain, suspended from ribbons and appliqued with hundreds of ruffled, pastel undergarments, circa 1910 (the lingerie styles are outdated but the foolishness aroused by a hint of forbidden pleasures are timeless (think Monica Lewinsky and our former president). Having that curtain stand in for the actual fiasco allows the opening scene to establish that the character most embarrassed by it is not the garment's owner, Louise Maske (Cheryl Lynn Bowers), but her pompous husband, Theo (Byron Jennings). Unlike Kafka's desperate victims of bureaucracy, Theo embraces being a minor worker ant in the realm of Kaiser Wilhelm with fanatical fervor. Thus, instead of taking pride in his pretty wife, Theo would prefer a more ordinary blend-into-the-crowd kind of mate to cook his supper sausages. As he puts it "I am a government clerk. I blend in. Because you are much too attractive for a man in my position. Your breasts, your legs, they draw the eyes. My job and your appearance do not go together! " The dropped underpants exacerbate Theo's concern with conformity and set off a frenzy of angst at losing face, and possibly his beloved civil service job. His view of the molehill as a mountain is summed up in his response to Louise's assurance that what happened took just two seconds: "With underpants around the ankles that's an eon!"
Since Theo is as dedicated to thrift as he is to propriety he has put out a for rent sign for the spare bedroom which he now fears will find no takers. Unsurprisingly, quite the contrary is true. Theo has hardly finished ranting and raving about Louise's faux pas than two potential renters appear, each one having been smitten by Louise after catching that flash of inadvertently exposed flesh, and now hope for far more. The first to arrive is Versati (Christian Camargo), a flowery poet-philospher. Next comes a Wagner loving Jewish barber (Lee Wilkof) whom Martin has astutely renamed Cohen (from Sternheim's Mandelstam) to make way for some funny and incisive business about Jewish guardedness in a world where eyebrows are poised to tilt suspiciously at the mention of a Jewish sounding name or word. (Sternheim, a Jew born in Leipzig in 1878, had first-hand knowledge of what it meant to be a Jewish in the Wilhelmian era).
Martin emphasises the social satire in the contest for Louise's favors. Louise likes being admired a lot better than being husband-pecked and so the adaptation highlights the fact that her "two seconds" of infamy are an aphrodisiac that triggers her sexual self-empowerment.
To go into scene-by-scene detail about the romantic maneuverings of Versati and Cohen would spoil the fun of following the farcical comings and goings punctuated with bourgeois philosophizing ("Not to be precise is to take the long way around". . . "Why would a woman want a man who is like a woman -- a man should be at his desk". . . "A real man takes care of someone"). Suffice it to say that the thrifty Theo ends up with both Versati and Cohen alternately using the bedroom, plus a third would-be boarder who is as rib-ticklingly funny as his name, Klinglehoff (William Duell). Encouraging the heretofore sexually deprived Louise (in a year of marriage she and Theo have had sex exactly once) to have an affair is her eager for vicarious thrills neighbor Gertrude (Kristine Nielsen).
You don't need to have seen or read the original to spot Mr. Martin's fine hand in the double entendres and the character embellishments. To illustrate the Martinesque entendres: the poet declared his stated and unstated intent as Theo's tenant with: "I'll slip in and out without your knowing it" . . . Theo hopes that Louise won't overdo her landlady role of "servicing these men". . . and Gertrude tells Louise that she's been to the theater to see "a comedy by Sternheim" which "needs to be adapted." The character embellishment that's as dark as it is funny is Theo's physical fitness mania, a portent of the athletic clubs that became seedbeds for Hitler youths. Martin, also makes sure that everything plays out to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion -- right to a surprise late arrival (Patrick Boll) in a finale that feels a bit like a 1910, non-musical The Producers.
The actors, most of whom I've seen and greatly admired elsewhere, wrest every ounce of humor from their roles It's a pleasure to see the versatile Byron Jennings live up to the comic potential displayed as a thinly disguised Noël Coward character in the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. His Theo is the very model of the subservient civil servant who is quick to play the petty dictator in his own little empire.
While Heather Goldenhersch, originally scheduled to play the female lead, seemed an ideal Louise, Cheryl Lynn Bowers nicely conveys the necessary blend of demure little housewife and potential adulteress. Lee Wilkof, last seen and heard soft-shoeing his way through the show-stopping "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Kiss Me Kate, and coming close to rivaling Brian Murray as on of the theater's most steadily employed actors, is a delightfully comic Cohen (or as he insists, "with a K"). Christian Camargo as the egocentric poet-philosopher Versati is also deliciously comic. William Duell makes a major contribution in the minor role of the dour Klinglehoff, as does Kristine Nielsen as the nosy neighbor willing to live through her pretty young friend.
To add to the assets of this splendid production, Mr. Edelstein has enlisted a top notch design team. Scott Pask has captured the play's mix of realism and expressionism with the finely detailed Maske domicile and that wonderful curtain that remains partially visible throughout. Angela Wendt's costumes add to the visual pleasures.
At a time when full frontal nudity is not likely to cause an uproar, there's still truth of a comment made by one of the characters: "Never underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie."
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