The Underpants

“The Underpants”
a kate west review
by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin
directed by John Rando
The Geffen Playhouse

10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles 90024
March 9 –
April 18, 2004 – EXTENDED
Call (310) 208-5454

Hollywood’s own Steve Martin, having written and performed his uniquely zany style of comedy for decades, has recently turned to playwriting. The Geffen Playhouse’s first original production was Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and both theater and writer have come full circle in their latest production, “The Underpants.”

Influenced by German expressionism and adapted from (bitterly anti-bourgeois) Carl Sternheim’s “Die Hose” (“The Knickers”) of 1910, “The Underpants” is a broad, stylistic, comic romp reminiscent of the classic French comedies by Moliere. The play stars Dan Castellaneta (best known as the voice of America’s favorite cartoon dad, Homer Simpson) and Meredith Patterson as a quintessential ordinary middle class 1900’s German couple, Theo and Louise Maske. Theo is furious at his wife Louise for accidentally dropping her underpants in a public park, in front of the eyes of His Royal Majesty, the King and all of society. The direct result of this intolerable scandal is a parade of lustful young men, seeking to board with the Maske’s and smitten by their stolen glimpse of Louise’s drawers. Jack Betts and Steve Vinovich have smaller roles as other German caricatures.

Anthony Crivello plays the magnificently exaggerated Italian version of Casanova, the flamboyant Versati. He excites Louise into fantasizing about romance in her humdrum, oppressive existence. Egged on by her vicariously hungry and ever-optimistic neighbor, Gertrude (deliciously played by the delightful Amy Aquino), Louise plots an affair with Versati as revenge against her boorish, demanding and unpleasant husband. As Theo, Dan Castellaneta plays the part overly loudly in the style of the piece, but a little grating nonetheless.

Also, the constant double entendre references to melons, wieners, cigars and cherries do get a bit old. Patrick Kerr plays another suitor, Cohen, the Jewish dentist, who, by hiding his religion, provides much fodder for the buffoonishly anti-Semitic Theo. The entire production is larger than life and over-the-top, including the fascinating surreally clownish set by Alexander Dodge. The award-winning director John Rando (for Broadway’s acclaimed hit, “Urine Town”), pulls together a professional production, however the blatant humor is an acquired taste.

Obviously poking fun at social convention, the audience must still suffer through bad puns and outright slapstick routines. Martin’s influence is apparent in much of the sexual humor and will appeal to the common denominator. The contemporary relevance lies in the ridiculous furor over a minor social faux pas and how that affects everyone’s lives, bringing a little glamour and fleeting fame to Louise and then just as quickly leaving her again to her domestic fate. Running about one and a half hours long, with no intermission, the frantic pace is dizzying at times and the base humor is not for everyone. In general, however, the production is definitely an audience pleaser and has drawn sell-out houses.

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