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Martin's 'Underpants' too stretchy, lacks snap

The Baltimore Sun

Parental Advisory: The set's turrets and towers are reminiscent of a fairy tale. The theme music will set many members of the audience to humming a beloved nursery rhyme. And the title seems tailor-made to titillate the curiosity of 6-year-olds.

But, moms and dads, leave Junior at home. Nothing in the production of The Underpants currently running at the Olney Theatre Center is even remotely childlike.

No, this 1911 German sex farce (receiving a modern adaptation by that wild-and-crazy guy, Steve Martin) makes passing reference to the politics of opera composer Richard Wagner and the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin. It pokes fun at self-important artists and at the obtuse bourgeoisie.

There's little in this production for kids - but unfortunately, there is also less than there might have been for grown-ups. The Underpants never quite achieves the sense of giddy uplift, the freedom from constraints, that makes farce irresistible.

In the play, Louise is a neglected young wife who is watching a parade when her bloomers fall down around her ankles on the street. Louise's husband, Theo, is furious and humiliated. But the incident ignites the ardor of the men of the town, who compete to rent a vacant room in the couple's flat. Meanwhile, the upstairs neighbor, a widow, lives vicariously through Louise's sudden popularity.

Louise's dilemma results from the faulty construction of her foundation garments. Likewise, many of this production's flaws were caused by Martin's alterations of the play's basic structure.

The show, originally written by Carl Sternheim, is a prescient comedy that skewers the smug, petty German middle-class - the same group that eventually smoothed the rise of Adolf Hitler. Not surprisingly, Sternheim's work later was banned by the Nazis.

Martin's preoccupations are poles apart: discrimination against women, sexual liberation and our society's questionable appetite for scandal and fame.

These are two vastly different world-views, and they do not coexist easily in the same play. Sternheim's tone is satirical, and his merriment is seasoned with anger. Martin's rewrite is not.

As a result, the play really has two endings, in which both authors attempt to decide which of Louise's many suitors will win her favor.

Neither one works. Sternheim's original, ironic ending now falls flat. Unfortunately, the second, farcical ending that Martin crafted is a muddle. There's no sense that a journey has been completed, that the audience has arrived at a predetermined destination, however unexpected and bizarre.

The best thing about this production is James Wolk's set design. The interior of Louise and Theo's home has the off-kilter sensibility of a cuckoo clock, and the backdrop of early 20th-century Dusseldorf resembles a picture book. Wolk also starts off the evening with a funny visual joke - just before the play begins, a clothesline hung with undies of all sizes, shapes and hues topples onto the stage floor.

Talk about airing your dirty laundry in public.

The acting is uneven. Bruce Nelson, as Louise's hypochondriac suitor, Benjamin Cohen, is the only real physical comic in the cast. As he hobbles across the floor, his legs stiff and one shoulder hiked higher than the other, he seems to be simultaneously suffering from every ailment under the planet - including Mad Cow Disease. But Nelson has mastered the difficult feat of combining exaggeration with restraint. When, in response to Louise's confidences, Cohen responds, simply, "ah," the character becomes more than a collection of neurotic tics. His underlying humanity shines forth.

Joan Rosenfels clearly enjoys the role of the bawdy neighbor, and her pleasure is contagious. But neither James Beneduce (Theo), Allison McLemore (Louise) nor Jeffries Thaiss (the poet Versati) have the requisite lightness and speed for a romp of this type.

The laughs are sporadic, and they are late in coming. Instead of riding a gust of madcap hilarity, this production of The Underpants flaps in the breeze.

if you go

The Underpants runs through Oct. 19 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Tickets cost $25-$45. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org for showtimes.

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