As anyone knows who passes by the Soldiers and Sailors' Monument during St. Patrick's Day revelries, dropping trou is not an uncommon or even startling event. But for a woman to lose her bloomers a hundred years ago on a crowded German street was something else again.
That's the setup in The Underpants, now at the Beck Center. This bawdy and unrelentingly silly sex farce is an adaptation by comedian and actor Steve Martin of a play by Carl Sternheim, a playwright in the German expressionist movement who was given to tweaking the staid middle-class conventions of his time.
As directed by Matthew Earnest, the production delivers all of Martin/Sternheim's droll double entendres with precision, generating many laughs. But beyond all the surface leering and panting, there is missing an undercurrent of sex-repressed craziness that could make the play resonate on deeper levels.
The inadvertent panty-dropper Louise Maske lost her knickers while watching the king pass by in a parade. And even though she scooped up her unmentionables in a thrice, her husband Theo is outraged — not just by the wardrobe mishap but also by his wife's general comeliness: "You are much too attractive for a man in my position. Your breast, your legs, they draw the eyes!"
And to prove his point, a randy poet Versati (Randy Muchowski) and a deferential baker Cohen (Kevin Charnas) show up at the Maske house to rent the couple's advertised room. Of course, the men have been drawn there by the now-scandalous Louise, whose descending drawers have cast a trance on seemingly half of this Bavarian town.
Theo agrees to rent to both boarders by dividing the available room in two, and thus Louise is pursued with varying degrees of skill by the two would-be Lotharios. Louise's already carnal interests are piqued further by her nosy upstairs neighbor, Gertrude (Sally Groth), who can't help hearing everything that goes on down below since she scrubs her floor with her ear pressed to the boards "for leverage."
As Theo, Greg Violand essays a stout and priggish fellow who has the soul of a file clerk (which he is) but the domestic attitude of a tyrant. He issues every comment like a thunderbolt from Mount Olympus. Referencing his obstinate personality, he declaims: "I can't change my mind; I'd have nothing to think!"
Katie Nabors is sweet and mostly innocent as Louise, and does her best to react to all the sexual tension swirling around her. But even within the broad outlines of this farce, there are rebellious undercurrents in Louise that Nabors never quite, um, fleshes out.
Earnest is one of the most innovative directors to work in this area, but it seems his powers of invention wobble when it comes to supporting characters. The two renters are fixated on romancing Louise, while Gertrude is busy whipping up some new sexy skivvies for Louise. But they remain fairly predictable in their passions, when taking riskier chances with their fairly stock characters could have resulted in more hilarity.
Still, Groth has some nice moments as Gertrude, prodding Louise to stray from her arid year-long marriage. And the constantly trembling Charnas helps bring out the only sharp social commentary in the play when he attempts to hide his Jewishness ("It's Cohen with a K") after Theo sends out some anti-Semitic signals.
The Underpants is performed on a handsome set designed by Will Bezek, featuring rooms backed by a wall hung with different sizes and shapes of windows. Among other things, these windows represent the eyes of the town that gaze upon Louise after her incident.
And that theme of accidental celebrity, while interesting, is mostly subsumed in the incessant and often very witty wordplay at work. Indeed, some of the wink-wink references go by so fast ("I am taken aback!" "A euphemism for 'from behind'?"), it's virtually impossible to track them all.
Eventually, it all comes to a conclusion when a third renter, a prudish scientist named Klingelhoff, enters the fray. He is played by Mark Seven, an actor with an intriguing face and voice, plus the ability to own the stage simply by taking up so little of it.
Of course, a sex farce should be about sex. As Theo explains, "Flesh speaks to men from under coats, under caftans, under furs, from igloos. There's always a small voice calling: I am here." But in this production, the sexy-time could be more fun and the subtext a bit richer. And that would be a theatrical orgasm truly worth experiencing.