Comedy, maybe even more than beauty, is in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder. By the end of the Classic Stage Co.’s production of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 play “The Underpants” — in a new version by the remarkably versatile Steve Martin — laughter was ringing in my ears, even as a more painful sensation, something akin to a migraine headache, was gnawing at me from the inside.
OK, I confess: German comedy has never been my thing. Notwithstanding the ministrations of Mr. Martin, this arch, madcap satire of bourgeois complacency from a writer once dubbed the German Moliere (now that’s funny) in my estimation merited only a few chuckles and a giggle or two — a mere fraction of the guffaws being lavished upon it by a fair portion of the audience.
But it’s hard to judge Martin’s adaptation apart from Barry Edelstein’s determinedly overbearing production. The set by Scott Pask and costumes by Angela Wendt are subtly witty, and quite charming, too, but the actors approach the material as if they were worried their dialogue might not be funny if delivered at something less than top volume — call it the “when in doubt, shout” school of comic acting. And when they’re not shouting, they’re usually mugging; rarely do you notice the whites of the actors’ eyes as often as you do here.
Byron Jennings, who plays the central character, an uptight bureaucrat, is possibly the worst offender, but then he has reason to be. An experienced talent with plenty of classical credits to his name, Jennings is not a natural comedian, and watching him huff and puff his way through the play’s increasingly zany antics is like listening to a soprano sing an entire opera slightly off-key.
Jennings’ Theo Maske (Sternheim wrote a series of comedies about the Maske family) is at his wit’s end as the play begins, fearing the possible ramifications of an unfortunate incident involving his wife. It seems the comely Louise (the comely Cheryl Lynn Bowers) was strolling along the boulevard on parade day when her knickers fell down, ever so briefly. Word of this calamitous event has swept through the town, and Theo is expecting dire repercussions to follow.
Yet somehow, he doesn’t notice that the two men applying to rent a room in the Maske household are not as interested in its amenities as they are in those of the proprietress. They both witnessed that earth-shaking knickers-drop and are obsessed with getting their hands on what’s inside the celebrated undies.
Aided by nosy upstairs neighbor Gertrude (Kristine Nielsen, handily capturing the mugging prize), who encourages her to indulge in a little extramarital dalliance, Louise attempts to finesse a rendez-vous with one of the lodgers, the pompous poet Versati (Christian Camargo). The other, a barber named Cohen (Lee Wilkof), whose Jewishness cues a series of strange gags pointing up Theo’s anti-Semitism, attempts to thwart it. Meanwhile the self-satisfied Theo, oblivious, lectures Cohen on the tenets of healthful living and Versati on what it means to be a man.
Strange is indeed the word for the play’s mixture of sex farce, satire, ironic social comment and oddball philosophizing. Martin’s loose, gleefully silly version has plenty of schoolboy sex jokes (“I will not beat around the bush!” says Versati when rhapsodizing about Louise’s mishap), and manages to work in references to Theo’s flatulence and diarrhea, to boot.
There are old-fashioned vaud routines (as in this barber-poet exchange: “You dye your hair!” “I do not!” “I dyed it!” “Well, so did Wagner!” “Wagner dyed your hair?” Ba-dum-bum), and groan-worthy puns, too (“How dare you insult barbers!” fumes Cohen when Theo calls Versati “barbaric”). When it is not simply silly, Martin’s language often has a funny, fanciful ring to it.
The play also seeks to comment ironically on the changing roles of men and women of the period and the closed minds and hypocritical hearts of middle-class culture. It concludes with the suggestion that Louise, who has been the passive, frustrated victim of all the men’s sexual fantasies and hangups, finally realizing she has the upper hand in matters sexual.
Not surprisingly, these elements aren’t always smoothly integrated into the reigning comic tone, which is a kind of zany inanity layered over arch, bug-eyed melodrama. It’s as if Ibsen’s Nora Torvald had been plopped down in the middle of a Feydeau farce peopled by minor philosophes. That’s a strangely spiced stew. Small wonder, then, that Edelstein and his performers can’t resist the urge to force-feed it to us, even if the result is likely to give at least some of the audience a strong case of indigestion.