Think Steve Martin and what comes to mind is likely to be smart, literate comedy that will make you think while you’re having a laugh. That, and banjos.
Banjos do turn up in Mr. Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 sex comedy, The Underpants, but they’re only talked about. Which is what you can say about sex, as well: it’s discussed but it never really appears. And, when it gets close to appearing, a lot of people become embarrassed.
Louise Maske (Holly Rone) has caused something of a scandal in her strait-laced German town when her underpants slipped off her hips and ended up down around her ankles while she was shopping. Theo (Matthew Henerson) is furious at what he considers to be his own public shaming by his wife’s behavior, but the incident brings three men calling after a room the Maskes have for rent: Frank Versati (Jacob Bruce), a poet, Benjamin Cohen (Omri Schein), a barber, and, eventually, Klinglehoff (Jonathan McMurtry), a scientist.
Frustrated by her lack of a sex life (her husband says he’s waiting until they have enough money saved to support the pregnancy that he’s sure will result) Louise takes the advice of her nosy neighbor, Gertrude Deuter (Clarinda Ross) and tries to start an affair with the poet. There are two complications, however. First, the barber is obsessed with the poet’s sex life and is constantly watching him, and second, the poet would rather, well, write poetry.
Now, if all of this set up feels like farce is coming on that’d be a good guess. There’re even three doors in Marty Burnett’s expressionistic scenic design that could easily serve as means for pinpoint entrances and exits. Unfortunately, your guess would be wrong. The play sticks with the sexual frustration of its characters, and both jokes and plot points become repetitive. That debonair Mr. Martin ended up picking a dull night at the theatre as his source material. And, at some level, he may well have known what he did – at one point in the show a character returns from the theatre where he saw a comedy by Mr. Sternheim. Any good, he’s asked? Wait for the adaptation is the response.
But, North Coast Rep has hired a high quality director (Mark Pinter, himself about as debonair as Mr. Martin) and talented cast to perform this trifle, and they very nearly pull it off.
In particular, the secondary roles come off well. Ms. Ross plays a busybody with aplomb, particularly when some sexual attention is turned her way. Mr. Schein is NCR’s favorite schlemiel, and his sex-obsessed barber doesn’t disappoint. When he shuffles across the stage, all eyes hone in on the hilariously worst haircut imaginable (Peter Herman is credited with hair and wig design). Mr. Bruce isn’t quite enough of a leading man as the poet, but he’s makes good sense of his character’s shifting ardor. And, while Mr. McMurtry has the smallest role his impeccable comic timing makes his brief stage time memorable.
The season ticket marketing crew was giving out bonbons in the lobby during intermission. The show itself is intended to be a bonbon as well, but heavy-handed plotting keeps even a quality cast from succeeding with it.
[box] North Coast Repertory Theatre presents The Underpants, by Carl Sternheim and adapted by Steve Martin. Performs September 5 – 30 at the company’s facility in Solana Beach. Show times are Wednesday and Sunday at 7pm, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets ($37 – $54) are available by calling (858) 481-1055 or by visiting the NCR website.
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