‘The Underpants’ a satisfying satirical farce
By Diana Saenger
Can politics be shrouded in a cloud of humor?
That was the intention of playwright Carl Sternheim when in 1910 he penned the farce “Die Hose.” In 2002, comedian Steve Martin adapted Sternheim’s send-up of bourgeois snobbery and conformity in his version, “The Underpants,” which makes its San Diego premiere on Sept. 8 to open the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 31st season.
The play centers on a woman whose underwear slips to her ankles in the middle of town and causes a public scandal. Director Mark Pinter points out that such an incident today would be almost unnoticeable, but in 1910 it was shocking.
“Carl Sternheim was a Jew and a playwright who was forced to flee Germany in 1912,” Pinter said. “His script (initially banned) was really a comment on the German middle class and meant to be very political, but Sternheim was cleverly referencing the underbelly of society in humorous ways. Steve Martin has put his twist on the play, admitting he couldn’t resist it speaking to him in modern terms. ‘The Underpants’ is an unabashed farce with sight gags and rimshot jokes.”
It goes like this … Theobald Maske (Matthew Henerson) is worried about renting out a room in his flat and trying to keep his job. He definitely didn’t need his wife’s public incident. Now, he vows to keep her at home. But he needn’t worry because Louise Maske’s (Holly Rone) episode has made her famous.
That’s what attracts two new renters to the flat. Frank Versati (Jacob Bruce) and Benjamin Cohen (Omri Shein) could care less about the apartment. It’s Louise they’re after. She’s aroused a passion in them to court her.
The attention intrigues Louise who’s not feeling fulfilled by Theobald. Though, normally, she would resist any thought of suitors, she is encouraged by her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Clarinda Ross). Gertrude knows Louise wants to have a baby and, so far, Theobald has not helped that happen.
Director Pinter said the premise of the play is something people can relate to today. “Louise, basically, has 15 minutes of fame and then loses it, and then something surprising happens,” he said. “Things like this happen every day in our world. People post things on social media and get responses — sometimes good, other times bad. Although unintended, this play has a real gut connection to today’s world … and it’s a lovely period piece with period costumes and a very fun set.”
One of the funniest characters in the play is Klinglehoff, a scientist who adds another element to the plot when he also rents a room at the flat. Who better to play Klinglehoff than beloved and acclaimed TV, film and stage actor Jonathan McMurtry?
“Jonathan is legendary,” Pinter said. “He needs little direction, and he puts his own particular spin on this character.
“He always delivers the goods, and it’s a pleasure to watch him. One of the things I hope about this play, is that in addition to the patrons having a good time with all the farce, that maybe on the way home they’ll think, ‘that play really meant something more.’”