By Carl Sternheim
Adapted by Steve Martin
Directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Produced by Hubris Productions
At the Greenhouse Theater Center
If you haven’t heard enough about GSI’s in a while, ask a German
The first thing that struck me about The Underpants is how distinctly German it is. I mean, let’s be honest, when you think Steve Martin, your mind does not immediately fly to dirndls and discussions about BMs – both of which, I assure you, are quintessentially German. But I can inform you with confidence that this play contains both. It is also – and this is much more what you would expect from Steve Martin – a farce. And a rather enjoyable one.
As the play opens, Theo and Louise Maske (Jack Birdwell and Jessica Maynard, a fellow University of Michigan alum) rush into their apartment, scandalized: while they were innocently watching the king’s parade, Louise’s underwear fell to her ankles. She immediately swept them up, she contests, but Theo is concerned that he will lose his job and his reputation because of his wife’s “indiscretion.” Meanwhile, two men who witnessed the occurrence, the poet Frank Versati and the Jewish barber Benjamin Cohen (Josh Nordmark and Jeremy Cohn, respectively) see the “For Rent” sign hanging in the couple’s window and apply for the same room, being enamored with Louise. Theo decides to make double and rent to both of them, unaware of their true intentions. Louise, meanwhile, takes a liking to Versati, and begins plotting an affair with her upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Deuter (Calidona Olivares), only to be continually foiled by Cohen. And, as it is a farce, all becomes right again by the end.
That said, whereas the play is solid, the production is middling. There were countless missed opportunities for comic pizzazz; the timing was all-too-often off; enunciation was an issue; with some actors, the physicality just wasn’t there. Jack Birdwell I found particularly uninspired. He did play the “boring bureaucrat,” stodgy, old-fashioned, misogynistic and anti-Semitic – that is to say, the “straight man” around whom everything is falling apart, whether he is aware of it or not. So perhaps not the easiest character to lend depth and interest; but he was just sort of loud, square and stiff, and didn’t create a believable foil. Josh Nordmark’s Versati was enjoyably grandiose; Calidona Olivares was spot-on with Gerdrude. Jeremy Cohn did not bring to the table the physicality a farce like this needs. Jason Dabrowski, as the truly stodgy, old Klinglehoff was solid (my main criticism is wholly unfair: that he was not German enough, something that one would need to spend lots of time with Germans to notice – which is why this is parenthetical). With all that said, Jessica Maynard was great. She not only conveyed the most well-put-together character, she had the comic timing and physicality down. (You’d have to after starring in a show like Boxer, which is completely silent. That’s a bit of a sink-or-swim moment, as far as comic physicality goes. She brought it then, and she brings it now.)
The technical side of the show was fine: the sets and props were very nice. The costumes were mostly strong. Theo’s vest was very loose, and his modern suite coat didn’t really make sense with the Bavarian garb everyone else was sporting: there are Bavarian suite coats, which would have blended better. And pronunciation could have been better – but that’s another complaint that only someone who knows German and Germans would make (e.g. Maske was pronounced “Mask,” when one would pronounce the “-e” at the end, as well; and “Lohengrin” took me a moment to recognize when spoken).
When all’s said and done, it’s a fun night out, and reasonably priced, even when it’s not exactly a home run. If you go expecting a fun, silly farce without high-caliber talent (with a couple – remarkable – exceptions), you’ll have a good time.
Reviewed on 7.3.11
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
At the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL