nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
September 18, 2008
The Underpants is a door-slamming farce sparked by the unmentionables of a bureaucrat's wife falling down in public. Playwright Steve Martin has well adapted the original comedy by Carl Sternheim into a smart and funny play on the ridiculousness of how people deal with their sexual desires.
Louise Maske is a housewife stuck in a marriage without any semblance of intimacy. The controversy over her underwear falling down brings about suitors in the form of room renters. These potential extramarital affairs are the first time in her life she's seen any opportunity for escape.
Nat Cassidy is especially hilarious in his portrayal of Frank Versati, an enraptured poet whose excitement about words often manifests itself physically manifest—though not in a way that seems able to satisfy Louise. He is overcome with passion at the sight of Louise losing her lingerie, and comes to rent a room at the Maske home. Right on Versati's tail in pursuit of Louise is a Jewish hypochondriac, Benjamin Cohen. Although such a character runs the risk of being quite annoying and nasal, Jason Schuchman is able to make his neurosis amusing and endearing.
The third potential room renter is a scientist named Klinglehoff who (ostensibly) wants nothing to do with Louise or her underwear. In this role, Peter Levine is quite convincingly terrified of human contact. When confronted with Louise in her undergarments, although outwardly repelled, he seizes the opportunity (given at the suggestion of Louise) to believe the perversity is his own delusion. Klinglehoff is a fascinating extreme of the duality at work in each character, where his desires are so repressed, that they can only be expressed if he detaches from the reality of his outward life.
Played by Justin Herfel, Theo Maske starts the play yelling at his wife about the incident. His outrage is a poor starting place for an excellent production. The play is definitely supposed to be absurd, but this bit is overdone in a way that somehow isn't palatable. But Herfel eventually settles into the right amount of rigidity, and contributes very well to the production as a character whose sense of duty totally controls his instincts (except in the case of faithfulness to his wife.)
This play is really about desire and its restraint. The tightly wound upper-middle class puritanical world of this play reflects the contrast between our public and private selves. To let the private sexual self be shown in public is a matter of shame. Especially for Theo Maske, a practical conservative bureaucrat, to have his wife's undergarments exposed in public means that his entire career is in jeopardy. As we all know, for a political figure's sexual life to become public leads to the end of their political life.
When we actually see Louise in her skivvies, which reveal no more than her shoulders and ankles, we laugh at her excitement in revealing this withheld part of herself. At the same time we laugh at sexual allusions because they suggest the forbidden. The intention of this production is not necessarily to ask us to be fully forward with our sexual longings in public, but rather to draw attention to the foolishness that results in the necessary divide between our public and private lives.
The Underpants is an intelligent comedy that poses questions of an intimate nature without causing discomfort. I laughed and left feeling like I had a lot to consider, which for me is the perfect combination of experiences.