The Show Must Go One, And Town Players Are Offering Spectacular ‘Underpants’
By Julie Stern
The reason The Town Players of Newtown are staging Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s farce, The Underpants, is, as Director David Bass candidly explains in a handout contained in the playbill, because he was unable to cast his first choice for the fall production (a mÃ©lange of Dickens’ ghost stories) and the cast for his second choice (an award-winning Kenneth Lonergan drama) discovered unexpected commitments.
Because Bass is a dedicated trouper, rather than shut the doors of The Little Theater for the season,Â he uncovered a third possibility: a farce, sort of in the old tradition of the TP, involving the use of multiple doors and entendres.
I’m not sure why Steve Martin chose to rewrite a hundred-year-old satire of bourgeois German sensibilities, and I don’t know what changes he made, or how close it follows the original script. It would seem that a culture steeped in the kind of repressive neurotic anxiety that produced Franz Kafka, Edvard Munch and Ernst Kirchner is not immediately familiar to American suburbanites. Thus we are likely to view the characters as behaving unreasonably, without understanding why Sternheim wrote them this way, or what point he was making.
That said, it is possible to take the play as it is, without worrying about the underlying point, and that is what most of the audience seemed to be doing during one of last weekend’s production opening performances. On the way out we heard several people describe it as “cute,” and that seemed to satisfy them.
So what is The Underpants about, anyhow? Tim Huebenthal plays Theo Maske, a supremely uptight Kafka-esque clerk – a tiny cog in a vast governmental bureaucracy – whose fear of losing his job dominates his thoughts to the point where he avoids doing, wearing, or saying anything that might attract attention.
To his utter mortification, his wife LouiseÂ (Liesbet Higham) creates a minor scene when the elastic snaps and her underpants fall down on a public street, just as the king is passing by in a civic parade. As she righteously explains, it was hardly noticeable, since at that moment everyone was looking at the king, and it only took a second for her to step out of the offending garment and whisk it out of sightâ€¦
Things are complicated by a series of young men asking to rent a spare room from the Maskes. Frank Versati (Stephen Saxton), a poet, is particularly observant, and happened to witness the event, causing him to fall in love with the lady.
His quest is encouraged by Gertrude Deuter (Jennifer Gantwerker), the Maskes’ unmarried upstairs neighbor, who takes a vicarious interest in Louise’s romantic affairs.Â It is also challenged by Benjamin Cohen, a potential rival for both the room and the lady’s affections, as well as by Herr Klinglehoff (Lester Colodny), an elderly man who just wants the room, and curses gloriously when he feels thwarted.
The underpants when we finally get to see them are spectacular, and a special credit ought to go to Ruth Anne Baumgartner for creating them in all their multi-colored ruffled glory.
(Performances continue weekends until December 8 at The Little Theatre, 18 Orchard Hill Road in Newtown. Parents should note that this play contains adult themes and may not be appropriate for children under age 12.
See the Enjoy Calendar, in print and online, for curtain, ticket and additional information.)