What a joy! With a cast of outstanding Equity actors directed with a sharp eye and ear for comedy by Long Wharf’s artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, it is easy to see why celebrated comedian Steve Martin adapted this play from Carl Sternheim’s 1910 German farce. It is absolutely hilarious. Naughty but nice, the action starts when Louise Maske, a lovely housewife, attends the Royal Parade. As she climbs and stretches as high as she can to see the king pass by, her underpants fall to her ankles. Even though she quickly steps out of them and tucks them away, it is not fast enough to prevent some of the gentlemen nearby from catching a glimpse of the lovely lingerie and perhaps even more than that.
Louise’s husband Theo Maske, a no-nonsense kind of bureaucrat is furious with his wife. He’s worried the underpants incident will cost him his job. He is sure people will be talking about it and he complains bitterly about everything his wife does. He does not see his wife as the beautiful and desirable woman she is. They don’t have a lot of sex either because Theo maintains that they don’t have enough money for a baby. Keep in mind that the couple’s last name is Maske, which is quite telling.
Meanwhile, since Theo and Louise are hoping to rent out a room for some extra cash, there is a sudden burst of activity. Frank Versati, a poet who attended the parade and witnessed the underpants incident, wants to rent the room. He has fallen hopelessly in love with Louise. So too, Benjamin Cohen, who not only desires Louise, but intends to protect her from the womanizing poet.
Gertrude, the upstairs neighbor offers Louise plenty of advice. Most importantly, she tells Louise to have an affair with the handsome and romantic poet. Louise is ready for some loving, but things get complicated. The poet needs to write a poem and a third gentleman arrives to rent a room. The newcomer is old and doesn’t like noise or fuss. Just when things couldn’t get more complicated or more funny, the king arrives. Considering that Carl Stenheim studied Molière and created his farce in a style similar to Molière’s, the ending of the play is like the sun-god, the king, coming down to fix everything up. Steve Martin keeps this part of the farce intact.
Everything about this production, which Long Wharf does in association with Hartford Stage, is earmarked for comedy and beautifully rendered. Jenny Leona, a recent Juilliard graduate performs with such gracefulness and quiet passion that it is easy to believe that men would fall instantly in love with her. Didi Conn, who is best known for her role in “Grease” and “Grease II” as Frenchy is absolutely perfectly cast as the nosy neighbor. Didi Conn heightens the comedy in every scene she is in. Jeff McCarthy does a splendid job as the straight-laced, humorless husband. How he manages not to laugh while on the set with the others is incredible. Burke Moses as Versati, the handsome romantic poet, lives up to his character’s description and Steve Routman as Ben Cohen couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. George Bartenieff and the old gentleman adds just the right amount of color to this sensational cast.
Lee Savage’s set, complete with turn of the 20th Century middle-class kitchen as well as Jess Goldstein’s character-defining costumes really accent this memorable production in a positive way. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design and David Budries’ sound design also enhance the onstage action.
“The Underpants” is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. It is the first show of the new season and is so good that both Long Wharf and Hartford Stage will undoubtedly do well with this production. It is a “must see” production for anyone who loves a good farce. It plays at Long Wharf in New Haven through Nov. 10. Box office: 203-787-4282
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]