Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s sex farce, boiling over with slapstick, sight gags and innuendo, is a rapid-fire stream of hilarity that slows only to make a pithy point about celebrity and the loss of fame. As with Martin’s pic “L.A. Story,” Sternheim’s work — set in the time and place it was written, Germany in 1910 — is a comedy that teaches a lesson, which may have been the magnet for Martin; the countless giggles along the way provide one zippy ride.
Pinpoint direction from “Urine-town” helmer John Rando and superbly articulated perfs ensure a rollicking time. And the manner in which Rando gets Meredith Patterson, as the publicly scrutinized Louise Maske, to stop the play on a dime and make its ultimate point represents a marvelous transformation of character.
“Underpants” is peopled with obviousness: a demanding husband, a wife starved for passion, a myopic unpublished poet, a sickly barber and a nosy neighbor. They make big noisy entrances and exits, and nearly every piece of dialogue is accompanied by lustful sight gags, starting with an onslaught of props that deliver boob jokes and venturing, as is to be expected, into the duration of a sex act with a quick stop at passing gas at home. Wordplay, which starts broad and gains focus, is enticing throughout.
The play opens in a modest dining room-kitchen with Theo (Dan Castellaneta) fuming because his wife’s panties slipped down around her ankles in the town square. Aside from the public shame, he is convinced this will cost him his job as an assistant clerk in the government.
Louise does not see what the fuss is about — draw your own parallels to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl escapade — and with the encouragement of neighbor Gertrude (Amy Aquino), Louise is already questioning whether she wants to spend a life devoted to a man such as Theo.
Married for a year and childless, Teutonically cliched Theo has put off conception until their finances are in order.
Theo bosses Louise mercilessly, concerned with order and duty. His demands frustrate her, making the sudden arrival of handsome Italian poet Versati (Anthony Crivello) a chance for escape. She gladly rents him their spare room; at the drop of a hat, Gertrude is orchestrating their affair.
Meanwhile, Theo has encountered the barber Cohen (Patrick Kerr), who will pay rent as well; husband and wife bicker, then settle on having the two men share the room. The seemingly odd couple is actually on a mission — both had seen the underpants incident and longed to be near her. Cohen, who struggles to hide his Jewishness and has to amend statements a number of times, is mostly concerned that Versati and Louise don’t consummate their relationship.
Schemes are devised and curiously sidetracked. The door is slammed shut on Louise’s hope for a different future; Theo’s blindness to the world around him eventually makes a case for nose-to-the-grindstone perseverance.
But one begins to question where this bedroom comedy is headed; indeed, once Martin-Sternheim arrive at a contemplation about the fragile state of celebrity, one wonders if the journey was worth it.
Stacked alongside the celebrity dilemma is the question of parenthood and responsibility, one that will certainly resonate more deeply with most audiences. Much as it makes Theo suddenly appear as a worthy soul, doubt is cast on Louise’s motivations for a better life. Despite its no-place-like-home finale, “The Underpants” begs for a sequel.
Dressed up in a Dali-like mustache, Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) brings out the rigidity of Theo while having fun with the character’s quirks. He manages to play the supper-of-wieners scene, laden with innuendo, with a straight face and a modest temper, never curlycuing the lines to ensure everyone gets the subtext. The glee with which he plays a man transformed in the final scenes is heart-burstingly real.
Patterson has the fun task of turning on and off her randiness, depending on who’s in the room. Her interactions with Crivello border on the absurd yet manage to feel tethered to the idea of schoolgirl romance. Versati is a wacky Italian romantic — Cyrano as played by Chico Marx? — and she responds to him on a multitude of believable levels.
Kerr plays the nebbishy Cohen with aplomb and even throws in some Dick Van Dyke-inspired stumbling that comes out of nowhere. Aquino’s Gertrude provides the moral support for Louise to have an affair but then disappears; the almost inconsequential Klinglehoff (Jack Betts) is there to remind us of cold German behavior.
Alexander Dodge’s set of the Maske home has a comfy feel and remains open for the quick movements and pratfalls.