Wardrobe Malfunction

Although Steve Martin has nearly ruined the material, 'The Underpants' is performed valiantly by the ATC

Steve Martin has soiled his borrowed Underpants. In adapting Carl Sternheim's 1911 farce Die Hose for 21st-century American audiences, Martin has substituted the little brown stain of gag comedy for the viciousness that made Sternheim's work something fuller and more intellectually provocative than Martin's frilly entertainment. Even so, Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Underpants makes a good case for material that isn't quite top-drawer.

The play, set in Germany shortly before World War I, concerns the aftermath of a shocking wardrobe malfunction. Bourgeois housewife Louise Maske, attending a royal parade, has stretched a bit too far and accidentally allowed her underwear to fall to her ankles. When the curtain rises, it's actually Louise's husband, Theo, who has his knickers in a twist; the scandal certain to ensue, he insists, will endanger his job as a government clerk.

Steve Martin's version of Theo is a self-centered, anal-retentive, smug sexual hypocrite, yet Martin wants us to like him a little anyway. In the original play, Sternheim's first scene had Theo beating Louise with a stick. These days, we can't complicate mass-audience comedy with anything that provocative, so Martin has replaced everything strange and unsettling about Sternheim's script with verbal gags of variable success; the low-brow double entendres are very funny, but the more intellectual references don't quite come off. Not as easily as Louise's underpants, anyway.

Oh, and Louise turns out to be quite willing to drop her drawers given a chance. Once she is the talk of the town, two intrigued strangers show up, vying to rent the spare room in the Maskes' house. One of them is an extravagant poet, Frank Versati, who quickly primes Louise for seduction (in their first year of marriage, Louise and Theo have had sex exactly once).

The second stranger is a hairdresser named Benjamin Cohen, a witness to Louise's indiscretion but one so smitten that he has vowed to protect her virtue from predators such as Versati. Cohen professes a love for Wagner yet repeatedly has to dodge the suspicions of the anti-Semitic Theo. We know the truth: Cohen speaks with a Yiddish accent, grooms a horn-like forelock atop a bald head (just like Mishnik, the stereotypical Jew in the UA's current production of Little Shop of Horrors) and wears striped trousers. Costume designer David Murin seems to have taken inspiration from some illustrated edition of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

With Cohen around, it seems that Louise won't easily capitalize on her newfound celebrity, despite the help of her nosy upstairs neighbor, Gertrude. In another cop-out, Martin alters the scene in which Sternheim has Gertrude bed down with Theo. So, if Martin can't tolerate Sternheim's notion that some people are simply vile and that deceit and deception are just a part of everyday life, why on Earth did he bother with The Underpants at all? Merely because the title is amusing?

Martin even tones down the language. He does supply some very funny material; for example, seducer Versati promises Theo that as a tenant, he'll be in and out without Theo's ever knowing. There's plenty of such stuff from Martin, a veritable cornucopia of salacious double entendres, but much of Sternheim's own humor has been tossed out with the German. The only remnant of his absurdist use of language, for example, is when one character exclaims, "Thundering pussy ass balls!"

So what does ATC do with what's left? The production gets off to a good start with a cockeyed Robert Dahlstrom set that blurs the line between Georg Grosz and grade-school doodling. And it has an expert Louise in the person of Julia Dion; she may be less bosomy than the script implies, but she's perfectly zaftig. Conan McCarty is an oddly attractive Theo; McCarty is game for anything, but, under the direction of Jon Jory, some of his line readings are excessively emphatic. When, in the course of a discussion of Louise's public humiliation, Theo says something to the effect of "What will become of me?" it's not necessary to stress the "me"; the line would be much funnier if the joke wasn't pushed so hard.

Peggity Price is a thankfully down-to-earth Gertrude, and Jim Iorio is a suitably flamboyant Versati. Everett Quinton works very hard as Cohen, but he sometimes has trouble rising above the character Martin has given him, little more than a Borscht Belt Jew. Jarion Monroe and Wes Martin do everything that's necessary, and even a bit more, with their smaller roles.

The play ends with a halfway serious mediation on the transience of celebrity, but also a triumphant if minor act of independence by Louise. In the oppressive German patriarchy of The Underpants, Louise has clearly gotten too big for her britches.

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