- Could be verse: The poet Versati demonstrates his passion for Louise.
As we dress ourselves in today's modern clothes, it's sometimes difficult to remember how the world was . . . before spandex, before rayon, before, say, elastic. Ever since some lab geek invented that dandy rubberized fabric, our knickers have been kept snugly and modestly in place. But around the turn of the last century, proper pantaloon positioning was a function of one's knot-tying dexterity, and occasionally, a pair of silky unmentionables might slip off in public, even with Justin Timberlake nowhere in sight.
This is the wardrobe malfunction at the crux of The Underpants, now at the Cleveland Play House. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) has brought his comedic sensibility and wry wordplay to this adaptation of Carl Sternheim's farcical satire on the German middle class, set in 1910 Düsseldorf. The one-joke premise is that Louise, wife of the uptight and boorish government bureaucrat Theo Maske, recently dropped her drawers in public while craning to see the king pass by on the street. The descent of her skivvies causes a tizzy all over town, and soon a couple of gentlemen appear on the Maskes' doorstep, trying to rent their available room and find a way into Louise's notoriously loosely lashed undergarments.
One lothario, the poet Versati, rhapsodizes about Louise in florid prose, while the other, a shy and sickly barber named Cohen, softly wheezes his affections for the lady of the house. Greedy Theo decides to split the rental room in two, so that he can collect twice, and thus the stage is set for a barrage of sex jokes, along with some passing references to gender, politics, and anti-Semitism (Cohen tells Theo his name is spelled with a K, to avoid problems). Playwright Martin doubles every entendre he can find (Theo to Louise, with a wink, "You deserve something in you at night besides sauerkraut!") and displays a nimble way with dialogue. When Louise is in the throes of infatuation with Versati, she reveals her feelings to upstairs pal Gertrude: "My pulse." "What?" "It exists!"
But though chuckles abound, thanks to Martin's hair-trigger patter, this production never attains the height of truly liberated farce. There are a couple of missing pieces, one of which is Tanya Clarke's uncertain performance as Louise. Slim and beautiful, Clarke is at a physical disadvantage when it comes to playing a woman whose fluttering undies supposedly are her greatest attraction. But beyond her good looks, Clarke never seems comfortable in her role, sending mixed messages with her expressions and gestures. At one point, the audience laughingly perceived her to be breaking character with a spontaneous grin, when she wasn't.
The other problem is director Peter Hackett's lethargic pacing, which is burlesque and Germanic to a fault -- heavily thumping from one laugh line to another, when it should be floating as lightly as champagne bubbles. Hackett also tends to have his players pound on obvious character traits while ignoring subtleties that could provoke more humorous reactions. This is particularly apparent in the performance of Chaz Mena, who gives the obnoxious Theo a broad, loud, and repetitive attack that can be admired for its consistency, but ultimately becomes wearying.
The rest of the Play House cast is delightful. In the role of the literary romantic Versati, Sam Gregory exudes zany style and has ribald fun with Martin's nudge-nudge, wink-wink lines; questioned about the truth of his ardor for Louise, he kneels with hat over crotch and exclaims, "My veins are stiff with certainty!" The high point of the show is his scene when, finally alone with the libidinous Louise, she cries "Take me!" and he responds, "Yes, I will take you and transform you into words!" Whereupon he dashes off to his room to write a love sonnet. No wonder people have doubts about poets. Brad Bellamy is also amusing as the bumbling pseudo-suitor Cohen, whose every affectionate gesture is interrupted by a coughing fit or a fainting spell. Johanna Morrison's Gertrude is a brash and pragmatic hausfrau who, when presented with the prospect of bedding her pal's husband, reasons, "On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, why not?" In the thankless role of the third boarder, a prim but secretly potty-mouthed scientist, Ronald Thomas Wilson adds what he can to the male stereotyping.
The Underpants is an intentionally silly show, meant to poke fun at the vicissitudes of love and desire while sticking a thumb in the eye of pre-World War I Germanic officiousness. But even silliness must be spun from a solid core to be effective, and this is frequently absent, due to a lack of inspiration in the central roles. With so many great lines, this show should be more likable than it is. It makes a reviewer feel like Theo when he says to his wife, "I want to stop nagging you, but you just won't let me."