NEW HAVEN — A century ago a German playwright named Carl Sternheim wrote a ribald comedy satirizing the manners and aspirations of the rising bourgeoisie. Ninety years later, the actor, comedian and serious writer Steve Martin, took Sternheim’s play — Die Hose — and adapted it into an equally raunchy farce, The Underpants, which is serving currently the season opener for Long Wharf’s C. Newton Schenck III Theatre.
But as Martin himself observed, an adaptation is like a bad marriage: you start off intending to be faithful, but somewhere along the line you begin to stray, and then you realize that in order to be true to himself a playwright’s gotta do what he’s gotta do! In this case, he explained, it doesn’t make sense to satirize the bourgeoisie, because we are the bourgeoisie. Instead, to be in touch with modern sensibilities, even though he has kept the plot, and the setting of early 20th Century Dusseldorf, the thrust of Martin’s play is to make fun of sexism, greed and bullying.
Thus it isn’t the pretensions of the petty bureaucrat Theo Maske that we are invited to sneer at, but rather the dismissive way he treats his wife, and the arrogant hypocrisy and double standards he displays regarding men and women in general.
The story revolves around an incident that happens at a parade on the street outside the Maske apartment: just as the king in his carriage is passing their house, and Louise Maske reaches up high to wave a flag, the elastic on her underpants snaps and her bloomers fall to the ground. Although she picks them up quickly, Theo is mortified that people will have seen; he will be humiliated; he will lose his job; one more example of her stupidity and incompetence…
What happens instead is that a series of gentlemen arrive on the doorstep, asking about the room for rent sign in the Maske window. The swaggering poet Versati, the timid barber Cohen, and the tightly buttoned scientist Klinglehoff all want to rent that room, leaving Theo rubbing his hands in anticipation of the extra money this will add to his income.
What he doesn’t realize is that the men are really there because the sight of Louise’s nether parts has aroused their love — or at least their lust — and it is her they really want, far more than the room, which Maske has avariciously subdivided in two, with a curtain, so as to get double the rent.
In addition, he has no inkling that his beautiful and dutiful young wife might appreciate the romantic overtures she receives from Versati and Cohen, or that she is being encouraged in the idea of taking a lover by her upstairs neighbor Gertrude, an aging seamstress who hopes to live vicariously through her friend’s adventures.
Jeff McCarthy strikes the right tone as the insufferable Theo, and Jenny Leona radiates both innocence and wistful desire as the beautiful Louise. Didi Conn, who played Frenchy, the Beauty School Dropout in Grease, is an enthusiastic accomplice as Gertrude, and Steve Routman brings depth to the role of the little barber who must conceal his Jewishness from his landlord, even as he has the most honest conversations with the landlord’s wife. Burke Moses is a bit over the top as Versati, but then that is the nature of the character, with his dyed curls and honeyed words.
As directed by Gordon Edelstein, The Underpants is a frothy and enjoyable piece of theater, if not a memorable one. It has a great set by Lee Savage, full of realistic detail and bright color, and delightful period costumes by Jess Goldstein, including a variety of bloomers that would put Victoria’s Secret to shame.
(Performances continue until November 10, with performances Tuesday through Sunday evenings, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The show has a running time of 95 minutes, and no intermission.
Visit LongWharf.org or call 203-787-4282 for reservations and other information.)