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PlayMakers Repertory Company’s zany presentation of The Underpants, adapted from a classic 1911 German comedy for mature audiences by Emmy Award-winning comedy writer-turned-comedian Steve Martin and directed by three-time Tony Award® winner Gene Saks, is a sublimely silly sex comedy set in 1910 in the home of a newly married middle-class German couple named Theobald and Louise Maske (guest artists Matthew Patterson and Winslow Corbett). Martin’s cheeky 2002 adaptation of this charming play by German-Jewish dramatist Carl Sternheim provides a field day for an exceptionally strong comic ensemble, which also includes PlayMakers mainstays John Feltch as the amorous poet Frank Versati, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as the hypochondriac barber Benjamin Cohen, Julie Fishell as the Theo and Louise’s nosy upstairs neighbor Gertrude Dueter, Ray Dooley as the distinguished but demented old scientist Klinglehoff, and Kenneth P. Strong as the King.
With his thick shock of dark hair, cut high and tight on the sides, and his neat little black moustache, Texas actor Matthew Patterson looks a little like roly-poly comedian Oliver Hardy and (at times) a little like Adolf Hitler. Patterson really sinks his teeth into this meaty role as an officious petty clerk in an obscure bureau of the pre-World War I German government. Theo is a nonentity at the office by day, but a tyrant on the home front by night. Indeed, he’s so preoccupied with supplementing his meager government salary that he rents out a room of the small flat that he shares with his wife.
Winslow Corbett is provides a perfect foil for Patterson, with her luminous performance as sweet, ditzy blonde, impossibly innocent Louise Maske, unfulfilled in the bedroom and probably the most thoroughly inept housewife in Germany. It is Louise’s embarrassingly public faux pas involving the titular foundation garment that sets the play’s plot in motion, and puts Theo in a swivet. Because Louise failed to cinch up her bloomers, like a properly modest German housewife should, they dropped down, around her ankles, at the worst possible moment: while she perched—in full sight of a rather large crowd—on a park bench to watch the King pass by in a parade.
When he finds out about this miscue, Theo blusters and fumes. He fears that Louise’s booboo will cause a public scandal that could cost him his job. Instead, his beautiful young wife becomes an overnight sensation who attracts a trio of prospective tenants who eagerly compete for the right to occupy the Maskes’ spare room.
John Feltch is hilarious as Frank Versati, the flamboyant, oversexed big-talking poet who shamelessly pursues Louise, wooing and winning her with his maudlin verse but never quite getting around to consummating their adulterous affair. Jeffrey Cornell is highly amusing as the equally smitten but decades older barber Benjamin Cohen—Cohen insists that he spells his last name with a K—who fiercely denies he is Jewish while unsuccessfully romancing Louise; and Ray Dooley contributes a tart comic cameo as the distinguished scientist Klinglehoff, who also arrives at the Maske doorstep with youthful lust for Louise in his elderly heart and this unfortunate little tic that causes him to shout out obscenities when he gets overly excited.
Playing broadly for maximum laughs, Julie Fishell is a scream as the Maskes’ snoopy upstairs neighbor Gertrude Dueter, who keeps her ear to the door, the wall, the floor, whatever, to listen in on the newlyweds surreptitiously. This earthy, sex-starved woman lives vicariously through Louise, and urges her pretty dumb-blonde neighbor to play and play and play while her husband—the plump mustachioed cat—is away.
Ken Strong completes the cast with a brief but memorable performance as the King, who also witnessed Louise’s unfortunate mishap and finds himself irresistibly drawn to the Maske household like the others—like moths to a flame. Only, in this case, the inexperienced young girl has no idea of the enormous power over men that losing her underpants in public has given her.
As he did with PlayMakers Repertory Company’s critically acclaimed Oct. 5-30, 2005 production of The Front Page, guest director Gene Saks enlivens The Underpants with smart staging, crisp and fully nuanced characterizations, and wonderful bits of whimsy that heighten the hilarity of scene after scene. Two examples of the latter are: Saks’ addition of a cuckoo clock overhead to punctuate the proceedings with that bird’s ridiculous call at propitious moments, and his accentuation of the comedy in the scene in which Louise spikes the amorous barber’s drink with a sleeping potion. (Saks has Jeffrey Cornell start up the stairs to his room more-or-less erect and wilt more and more as he climbs the steps, until he finally has to crawl through the upstairs doorway on his belly.)
Scenic and costume designer Marion Williams not only creates a wonderful multilevel set, with the doors to the Maskes’ guest room and Gertrude Dueter’s flat on the upper levels; but she also dresses the PRC cast in an impressive array of colorful period fashions that accent the authenticity of the proceedings. Lighting designer Charlie Morrison, craftsperson Rachel E. Pollack, properties mistress Mary Chmelko-Jaffe, and sound designer Michèl Marrano also do yeoman’s work to make PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2006-07 season-opener a must-see comedy. Indeed, this stellar show earned an extremely rare (for PlayMakers) standing ovation at the conclusion of its opening-night performance on Oct. 7th.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Underpants Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 10-14, 17-21, and 24-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 15, 22, and 29, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or etix through the presenter's website. Note 1: There will be post-show discussions after the show's Oct. 11th and 15th performance. (http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=122 [inactive 8/07].) Note 2: On Oct. 19th, PlayMakers will participate in the nationwide Free Night of Theatre campaign by making FREE tickets available to those who have never attended a PRC production. (http://www.freenightoftheater.net/ [inactive 12/06].) Note 3: There will be an all-access performance Oct. 24th, with a tactile tour, Braille and large-print programs, audio description, and sign-language interpretation available in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at each performance. PlayMakers will offer first-time users of its accessibility services a buy-one-ticket-get-one-free discount. (For more information about accessibility services, telephone 919/962-2491 or visit http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=24 [inactive 8/07].) PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=137 [inactive 8/07]. Steve Martin: http://stevemartin.com/ (his official web site), http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=95761 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://imdb.com/name/nm0000188/ (Internet Movie Database). The Compleat Steve (Everything About Steve Martin): http://www.compleatsteve.com/ [inactive 1/08]. The Underpants: http://stevemartin.com/world_of_steve/print/the_underpants.php [inactive 10/09] and http://www.compleatsteve.com/writer/underpants_1.htm [inactive 11/06]. Gene Saks: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=16060 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0757256/ (Internet Movie Database).