In days like these, filled always with new waves of crisis and calamity, farce is the ticket. Tragedy seems left far behind, melodrama is drowning in special effects and comedy requires characters of at least moderate intellectual interest. Farce, with its endless cavalcade of outrage, offers the only diversion that works.
Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers are gone. Ionesco and Pinter are tired. Late-night television edges toward desperate hysteria. The theatre needs something fresher than Shaw, Oscar Wilde and W.S. Gilbert. So the Old Globe turns toward the comic genius of its great friend Steve Martin.
A couple of decades back, Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein commissioned Martin to adapt a brutish but clever German farce – Carl Sternheim’s 1910 The Underpants– for the New York company Edelstein was then running. Now the Globe, as anxious as the rest of us to cope with our poisonous era, has brought back Martin’s adaptation to examine for clues.
Sternheim used farce, best described as outrageous behavior in absurd situations, to pack scorn upon what he saw as the curious struggle of the individual versus the demands of society. Sternheim’s characters, short on standard issue mortality and virtue, are presented as naïve sensualists propelled by unswerving lust.
Martin and Edelstein, looking for laughs, probably were energized by the topicality of the play’s plot: The urgent ribaldry created by the seemingly accidental dropping in public of a young wife’s panties.
To each era its own specific titillations. That time, to quote one of Martin’s characters: “Never underestimate the power of a glimpse of underwear.” The flash of the forbidden draws a crowd. A poet. His barber. The old maid upstairs. A doddering old man. And more.
The potentially cuckolded husband is the biggest winner. His simple goal – obscure normalcy – is met and exceeded. He seems impervious to reality. But it’s the wife, changed forever, who is the best bet for the future. Despite frequent squirmy clichés, there is no clash of classic gender assumptions but, in a fashion that should satisfy all factions, lines are drawn for a doozie sometime in the future.
The history of the theatre art is one of specialists. There are tragedians, comedians and farceurs; juveniles, leading ladies, character men and soubrettes. But the theatre artist of today is well-advised to cultivate a wide range of skills and seek a reputation for valuable versatility. So casting can be tricky. As this production amply illustrates. Of the six important characters here, three are delightfully proficient at this kind of thing, two are acceptable and one is unfortunate.
The veteran Broadway director Walter Bobbie has been brought in to put the piece together and he’s a reasonable, if not ideal, choice. Adjusting this sort of show for an arena stage is no picnic but Bobbie and the designers approach the job with good cheer and many a wink. Some actors will finish this assignment with notably improved muscle tone in the legs, I predict. And I am glad the Globe budget can allow for the multiple doors that are so much a fixture of farce even if the doors do soon sink into invisibility, never to return.
If he’s not a farce specialist, Bobbie is certainly a master of coaxing laughs from absurdity and this enterprise benefits at length. His assistance to individual actors, alas, is less even.
Eddie Kay Thomas plays the husband with a blithe glow of self-satisfaction that shapes the fate of everybody else with aggressive insouciance. Michael Bradley Cohen makes the barber’s obsessions a dismaying tangle of victim neuroses iced with a smooth servant’s demeanor. (And I’ll never watch anybody climb the aisle stairs inside the Globe’s White Theatre without remembering his trip up them!) And versatile Joanna Glushak makes the upstairs busybody into voyeur, siren, mentor or gossip with Swiss-knife efficiency.
Luis Vega is acceptable as a fanciful poet, though it’s not his best role, and Jeff Blumenkrantz delivers a pitch-perfect old man. As the wife, Regina De Vera leaves an unfortunate cavity at the center of the show. It is her underwear, after all, that inspires all the fuss. Maybe the idea is that any underwear would do, but that’s not in the script. There needs to be some magic, some whiff of the exotic about this dreamy girl: An irresistible physical aura, an overwhelming innocence, a repressed schemer, something. Instead, Ms. De Vera offers only a fresh, obedient, sweet presence more appropriate for the melodrama heroine tied to the railroad tracks.
There’s a line in the play for the husband to ridicule art as inhabiting a “polka-dot world,” and John Lee Beatty was paying attention when he designed the dizzy, colorful set. Philip S. Rosenberg turned to staccato flashes and highlight pings with his lighting design while Alejo Vietti’s costumes trod the traditional with exquisite fit.
Many a stylish and inspired artist at work on this project. It can be approached as a goofy night out with a comic genius. But it doesn’t take much, these days, to use it as a nihilistic fantasy on the wages of indifference.
(Continues in the Old Globe’s White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 8, 2019.)