by Gail M. Burns, June, 2005.

The other day, while working on updating this Web site, I came upon a button that asked me to “click here for a chance to win free tickets” to a performance of The Underpants at New Century Theatre. I figured that the worst that could happen was that I would get on New Century’s e-mail list, which I would probably enjoy, so I clicked and gave them my name and e-mail address and went on about my business. I never win anything anyway. Imagine my surprise when a few days later e-mail appeared in my box asking me how many tickets I wanted and for which performance. As these tickets were a true gift to me, I almost feel more compelled to write than if I had “contracted” to write a review, to express my gratitude to the Daily Hampshire Gazette if nothing else, and to give the good folks at New Century Theatre a plug.

As I had expected, the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College is beautiful, and the New Century production was of very high quality. If I lived closer this is definitely a company whose work I would attend regularly. In fact I am already feeling lured eastward by their next offering Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones, running June 30-July 10.

The Underpants is a 2002 adaptation by Steve Martin of a 1911 German comedy Die Hose (or Die Hosen) by German playwright Carl Sternheim (1878-1942). It was the first of the six plays in Sternheim’s cycle collectively entitled Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class. From the start Die Hose, in which the slapstick farce is precipitated by the public descent of the underpants belonging to middle class housewife Louisa Maske while attending a royal passage, was steeped in scandal. According to Professor Michael Morley of Flinders University in Australia, “…the police chief of Berlin first required a change of title [to Der Riese (The Giant)], and then insisted on attending a dress rehearsal with the intention of banning the piece altogether…the performer Tilla Durieux was persuaded by the great director Max Reinhardt, to sit next to the official and distract him by any and all means from paying attention to the play at ‘problematic’ moments. The ruse was so successful that the play was passed without cuts; while the next day the performer received an invitation to a more intimate engagement where she “might be able to familiarize the official with further aspects of the theatrical situation in Berlin.”

I include that historical tidbit to give you a better sense of the society Sternheim was satirizing. This is the complacent middle class that permitted the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich following the German atrocities of World War I. It is no wonder that Sternheim’s plays were banned by both the Imperial and Nazi regimes. But Sternheim was very popular in his day, garnering comparisons to his idol Molière, upon whose cuckold farce George Dandin Die Hose was originally based, as well as to Georges Feydeau and Noel Coward. The first play staged in Berlin after WWII at the city’s major theatre was Sternheim’s The Snob and six years later Bertolt Brecht declared that Sternheim’s plays must be staged “so that finally the stink of the petit bourgeois and upper middle class can become something to laugh at.”

About his process of adapting Sternheim (and please note that this is an adaptation rather than a translation) Martin has written: “…however true I intend to remain to the original text, the adaptation is continuously influenced, altered, and redefined by modern times… In a sociopolitical play like…The Underpants, meanings change through time. What was relevant then is historical now. And what was tangential then can become central. I chose not to present the play as historical artifact. I decided to uncork the genie that Sternheim had placed in the bottle – the genie that makes the play relevant to our age. In doing so, I have had to subordinate some themes in the original, and emphasize others that…lurked under the surface. Sternheim’s play is ribald, satirical, self referential, and quirky. I hope I have retained those elements…”

He has, but he has also added his own voice. That is a danger of being a performer who often performs his own writing, as any stand-up comedian does and has Martin has done in several movies he has written. The Underpants sounds like it was written by Steve Martin, but it also sounds decidedly German and of its time.

So, to the plot. Louisa Maske (Jenny Lord), average middle class housewife, is standing on the street, in a crowd, watching as the King makes his progress through Dusseldorf, when the tie that holds up her under-drawers gives way and they fall to her ankles. We are discussing early twentieth century women’s underpants here – made of sturdy white cotton and covering the area from the waist to the mid-calf. They are held up by a drawstring, not an elastic. The fact that Louisa was not wearing a corset was in itself quite a modern statement. Women had only recently been released from whalebone and steel.

Her husband of nearly a year, Theo (Ed Jewett), a self-satisfied and autocratic civil servant, is appalled at this accident and fears that, if the King catches wind of it, it may cost him his job. Louisa hopes that people were focused on the King’s passage and that few if any noticed her embarrassment. They are both wrong.

The Maske’s have a room to rent, and shortly after Louisa’s misfortune men are literally lining up to become their tenants. The first two to arrive are Frank Versati (David Mason), a handsome and flamboyant poet, and Benjamin Cohen (Steve Brady), a whiney, hypochondriac barber who struggles to remember to conceal his Jewishness. Louisa is swept off her feet by Versati and repulsed by Cohen, who announces that if he can’t have her he will do everything in his power to prevent Versati from consummating their relationship. Meanwhile Gertrude Dueter (Laurie Dawn), the Maske’s nosy and oversexed upstairs neighbor is determined to help Louisa and Versati get together and deceive Theo. She even makes Louisa a slinky pair of pale pink drawers to aid in her seduction.

Louisa is quite shocked by her fifteen minutes of fame. At first she is horrified at the thought of cheating on Theo, but out of fear rather than love. She confesses to Gertrude that Theo has not been “doing his duty” in the bedroom because he claims they cannot yet afford children. “Except for my wedding night I would still be a virgin,” Louisa confesses. It does not take long for her unfulfilled sexual desires to come to the fore so that she literally throws herself at Versati. Needless to say, obstacles arise.

Eventually Versati relinquishes his lease on the Maskes room, which means that Cohen has no further need to be there either. They are replaced by two new boarders – a scientist, Herr Klinglehoff (James Emery) and a last minute visitor played by Jerry Smolin. The arrival of the latter gives Louisa a whole new perspective on her power and position as a woman and as a person.

I confess that I went in expecting standard British bedroom farce, a la “Run For Your Wife.” This was a very silly thing to do because this play is obviously neither British nor a bedroom farce. Sternheim wrote a social satire on German middle class life in the early 20th century, and Martin has updated it to comment on the same issues from a 21st century American perspective. The play retains its Teutonic bite, feeling at times almost Brechtian. This story plainly does not happen in the here and now, although, lest you think that such a “wardrobe malfunction” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in today’s world, I would refer you to Janet Jackson’s performance at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time extravaganza.

New Century has cast this show well. Director Jack Neary has Mason, Brady, and Dawn give frenetically energetic performances, which contrast nicely with Lord, who he often has play Louisa as exhausted and confused to the point of inaction, while Jewett holds center court as the pompous and staid Theo.

There was not a bad performance in the bunch, but I confess to taking special pleasure in Brady’s work, mainly because I imagine that in real life he is the least like the character he portrayed. His Cohen was disgusting and weasel-ly, but also strangely appealing. His bones seemed to have given way and his movements were floppy and uncoordinated, in stark contrast to Mason’s angular and articulated Versati.

Lord is a petite and delicate woman. Her drab grey outfit (designed by Elizabeth Smolin) perfectly echoed her drab grey existence and loveless marriage. Dawn’s hair and costume were high color in comparison, and she played the erotically charged Gertrude with such energy that I easily believed she was only 42. I suspect that Dawn is younger still.

It may be disconcerting to a modern American audience that none of Sternheim/Martin’s characters are particularly likeable people. They are all crass, weak, deceitful, and mercenary. Jewett has the particularly thankless task of playing the thoroughly despicable Theo. At first his rotund appearance and derby hat make you think of Oliver Hardy, but this is no comic teddy bear. This is a man who mistreats his wife sexually and emotionally. That Louisa obtains power over him and her own situation in the end would be good news, if one weren’t left feeling that further abuses of power are right around the bend.

Daniel D. Rist has designed an interestingly angled and open set, giving everyone plenty of room in which to cavort. My only complaint was the faucets on the kitchen sink, which were so glaringly modern and purchased at Wal-Mart as to make me shudder. I know that I am picky about little things, but how hard is it to go to Renovator’s Supply in Millers Falls and beg, borrow, or buy a more authentic faucet?

The Underpants runs through June 26 at the New Century Theatre, performing at the Mendenhall Center for the Arts on the Smith College campus in Northampton, MA. The show runs about two hours with one intermission. There is enough that is crass and erotic that I would not take children under 13, but teens will probably get a big kick out of the show. This is PG-13, not R rated stuff.

For tickets and information call the box office at 413-587-3933 or 413-585-3220.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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