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A CurtainUp Review

The Underpants
By Laura Hitchcock

After the West Coast premiere of The Underpants at The Geffen Playhouse, Artistic Director Gil Cates was asked why Steve Martin chose to adapt Carl Sternheim's 1911 German satire. "Who knows why an artist does anything?" said Cates.

In between the sheer farcical hilarity directed by John Rando (Tony-winning director of Urinetown), one listens for clues as to what Martin has done and why. If the play hadn't debuted in New York two years ago, one could accuse it of being ripped from today's headlines harpooning the incredible fuss made over Janet Jackson's bustier rip-off at The Super Bowl as "Nipplegate".

Beautiful young neglected housewife Louise becomes famous for 15 minutes when her underpants fall down during a parade for the King. Her uptight civil servant husband Theo is humiliated, her older neighbor Gertrude is titillated, and her spare room draws like bees to honey an aspiring odd assortment of roomers: passionate poet Versati, salivating baker Cohen and elderly scientist Klinglehoff. Louise's hopes for a fling with Versati are the pivot around which flim-flam Martin's skewering insights and incomparable quips, which evoked the rumbling laughter of recognition from a Hollywood audience.

"I'm a poet, unpublished, I'm proud to say!" declares Versati. "I want to sleep with you," he tells Louise. "It will only take a minute." He leaves poor Louise in the throes of unconsummated arousal to dash off to his study so his recording pen can "pulse onto paper."

Martin is very good at writing character and, as an actor, knows how to give this excellent cast plenty to work with. He touches on anti-Semitism when Cohen keeps spelling his name "Cohen with a K" and exaggerating the reaction to different spellings. Louise's face reveals her recognition of the meaningful attributes of the men in her life when Theo tells Versati: "A real man takes care of someone."

But this Louise is no turn-of-the-century cupcake. She has always snapped back at Theo. Though we see her knitting little garments when Theo tells her the roomers' money allows him to impregnate her, her last line, when he barks one of his orders, is ""In my own time!" Our final vision is of Louise leaning against her bedroom door smoking a cigarette.

John Rando's farcical flair and instinct for nuances perfectly interprets this production. The King, royally played by Steve Vinovich, is portrayed as an automaton, complete with salutes that squeak. Dark and dashing Anthony Crivello plays Versati with old-time melodramatic flourishes that at first seem clichéd. But that backward kick in the air that always accompanies his exit like a bad tango dancer, when mimicked in his duet with Louise, projects the image of a stallion in heat and we see where Rando is going and where Crivello arrives. Patrick Kerr more than holds his own as Cohen, creating a nerd energized by unstoppable passion Dan Castellaneta has the difficult task of playing a stuffy man in constant danger of being upstaged by these colorful characters but when he's on, he's the boss, both as Theo and as Dan. Amy Aquino as middle-aged neighbor Gertrude gives new meaning to Martin and Theo's imagistic if clumsy come-hither line, "Rivers still flow through rusty pipes." Jack Betts plays Klinglehoff, the elderly prudish scientist. Whether he's prudish because he's elderly or because he's a scientist is one of those kittenish characterizations Martin likes to leave open to interpretation.

Beautiful Meredith Patterson, already well known, will be better known. She has a rare combination of spirit and vulnerability.

The sight gags are one of this production's most inspired inventions, particularly Louise's memory of the King riding by on an automaton merry-go-round horse while her underpants drop from the ceiling like feminist flag.

For a review of the Off-Broadway production go here.

Playwright: Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin
Director: John Rando
Cast: Amy Aquino (Gertrude), Jack Betts (Klinglehoff), Dan Castellaneta (Theo Maske), Anthony Crivello (Versati), Patrick Kerr (Cohen), Meredith Patterson (Louise Maske), Steve Vinovich (A Late Arrival).
Set Design: Alexander Dodge
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Costume Design: Christina Haatainen Jones
Original Music and Sound Design: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: March 17-April 25, 2004
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles. Phone: (310) 208-5454.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.March 17.
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