On opening night last Friday, Actors Comedy Lab’s presentation of The Underpants, under the inspired direction of ACL co-founder Rod Rich, had not gelled completely to become the delicious and utterly irresistible comic soufflé that it will eventually become. All the ingredients are there to make former “Saturday Night Live” regular Steve Martin’s antic English adaptation of this PG-13 rated 1911 sex farce by German-Jewish playwright and lampooner of middle-class values Carl Sternheim into one of the highlights of the 2005 theatrical season.
In Rod Rich, Actors Comedy Lab has an outstanding director with a fine feel for comedy — especially the off-the-wall scripts that have become an ACL specialty. In frequent leading lady Morrisa Nagel, ACL has a versatile comedienne who gets better and better each time on stage. Her character, Louise Maske, is a true innocent, a sexually inexperienced young wife embarrassed that her bloomers inexplicably became untied and fell down around her ankles out in public at the worst possible moment: just as His Royal Highness, the Kaiser, passed by on parade.
Louise’s strait-laced middle-aged husband Theo (Raleigh Little Theatre regular Rob Jenkins) — an officious bureaucrat and something of a dead mackerel in the romance department — is absolutely mortified by his wife’s all-too-public faux pas. Instead of comforting her, he fulminates on how this accident will destroy his reputation, derail his less-than-meteoric career at the lower levels of the German government, etc.
To supplement Theo Maske’s skimpy salary, the Maskes rent rooms. But the character of their boarders changes markedly after Louise makes a public spectacle of herself. However urbane they appear on the outside, the men who now apply to rent a room are burning inside with an unquenchable lust for their youthful landlady.
These randy roomers include the hopelessly vain and decidedly oversexed masher-poet Frank Versati (David McClutchey), the hand-wringing hypochondriac-barber Benjamin Cohen (Jack Prather), and the ostensibly prudish old man of science Klinglehoff (Bob Dean). McClutchey is dashing as the handsome, sweet-talking Versati, who he sweeps Louise off her feet; Prather makes a most auspicious ACL debut as the sad sack Cohen, who wallows in self-pity while trying to wheedle and whine his way in Louise’s affections; and Triangle theater legend Bob Dean has a small role but gets a big laugh when his buttoned-down character finally erupts in a mumbled stream of profanity a la a sufferer of Tourette Syndrome.
Barbette Hunter, an ACL veteran and one of the Triangle’s finest actresses, is hilarious as the Maskes’ ultra-snoopy, eavesdropping upstairs neighbor Gertrude Dueter, a scandalous woman who shamelessly encourages Louise to break her marital vows to the stuffy Theo; and ACL mainstay Tony Hefner steals the show with a charismatic unbilled cameo as a character who must remain nameless here, lest it spoil the joke.
The turn-of-the-last-century set by technical director/scenic designer Thomas Mauney and the impressive array of period costumes by costume designer David W. Serxner are splendidly detailed. Mauney and Serxner both accomplish wonders with a shoe-string budget, and further establish their credentials as top practitioners of their crafts.
Lighting designer Jeff Besselman skillfully illuminates the fast-paced proceedings, and the creative contributions of properties mistress Betsy Bates and sound designer Tony Hefner also help make The Underpants a superlative sex farce that should get better and better with each performance.
Actors Comedy Lab presents The Underpants Wednesday-Saturday, July 20-23 and 27-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 24 and 31, at 3 p.m. in Thompson Theatre Studio, corner Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., N.C. State University, Raleigh, North Carolina. $8 Wednesday, $12 Thursday/Sunday, and $15 Friday-Saturday, with $2 discount Thursday-Sunday for NCSU TheatreFest Members. 919/515-1100. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. Steve Martin: http://www.stevemartin.com/. The Compleat Steve (Everything About Steve Martin): http://www.compleatsteve.com/writer/underpants_1.htm [inactive 10/05].
Prematurely white-haired, banjo-strumming, Emmy Award-winning comedy writer-turned-comedian Steve Martin has come a long, long way from his goofy appearances, wearing a novelty-store arrow-through-the-head and picking and singing “King Tut,” during the Golden Age of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” television program. Martin, a Waco, Texas native who grew up in Southern California, will receive the 2005 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 23rd, because he is not only one of the world’s greatest humorists, but also an award-winning actor, comedian, novelist, and dramatist.
Several Triangle groups have already performed Martin’s first original play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1993), which won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play. Now, Raleigh, NC-based Actors Comedy Lab is set to stage Martin’s 2002 Off-Broadway hit, The Underpants, July 15-31 in the intimate Thompson Theatre Studio at N.C. State University. ACL co-founder Rob Rich will direct the show.
The Underpants is a cheeky adaptation of a 1911 comedy for mature audiences by German-Jewish dramatist Carl Sternheim (1878-1942), who specialized in skewering middle-class families (like his own) as social climbers and snobs. Indeed, Die Hose (The Bloomers) is the first play in Sternheim’s famous Maske Tetralogy, featuring puritanical petty bureaucrat Theobald Maske (played by Rob Jenkins here) and his pretty young wife Louise (Morrisa Nagel), whom he shortchanges in the bedroom while pursuing his other passions. The play is set in the flat of Theo and Louise Maske in Düsseldorf, Germany.
In its preshow publicity, Actors Comedy Lab writes, “As the play opens, Theo Maske … berates his wife, Louise, for allowing her titular underpants to fall to the ground at a parade for the king. Theo frets that he and Louise will be financially ruined and become social outcasts from the inevitable scandal. But before long, besotted men appear at Maske’s door to rent a room — and, unnoticed by the proprietor, to seduce his wife. As scandal erupts into spectacle, the characters reflect, and reflect upon, our fascination with fame, our reliance on gender roles, and our enslavement by sex. Replete with off-the-wall humor, wordplay and masterful banter, Martin’s adaptation is as relevant today as Sternheim’s play was a century ago.”
Besides Rob Jenkins and Morrisa Nagel, the cast for The Underpants includes Bob Dean as the prudish old scientist Klinglehoff, Barbette Hunter as the Maskes’ nosy neighbor Gertrude Dueter, David McClutchey as the insufferably conceited poet Frank Versati, and Jack Prather as the self-pitying hypochondriacal barber Benjamin Cohen.
In addition to director Rod Rich, who helped produce the show with his wife, Nancy, and Bunny and Jack Safron, the Actors Comedy Lab show’s creative team will include technical director/scenic designer Thomas Mauney, lighting designer Jeff Besselman, costume designer David W. Serxner, properties mistress Betsy Bates, and sound designer Tony Hefner.
In reviewing the original Off-Broadway production of The Underpants, Bruce Weber of The New York Times wrote, “The play, written as a wicked satire on the middle class, has become in Mr. Martin’s hands an ambitious amalgam of comic book and social commentary, made out of sex jokes, slamming doors and sophisticated repartee.”
When Louise Maske’s bloomers dropped to her ankles as the Kaiser passed by, Weber adds, “The event has caused Theo, her meat-headed boor of a husband, great consternation; already unnerved by his wife’s good looks — "You are much too attractive for a man in my position" — he is petrified not only of scandal but also of any circumstance that would single him out as anything other than a good German.
Weber explains, “The panties incident does have its consequences, however, in the form of two strange men — a poet and a barber — who witnessed it and were rendered as twitchy as adolescents with Playboys secreted under their mattresses. Both of them show up to rent a spare room in the Maske home, and their lascivious attentions awaken Louise to her buried desires, which are additionally fanned by her upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, a voyeuristic busybody.”
In The New Yorker, Nancy Franklin claimed “[Steve] Martin was an inspired choice [to adapt] this play. He brings out its middle-class absurdities … and imbues it with just the slightest whiff of sadness. In his version, it’s clear that everyone is isolated in his or her own fantasy world, and that in the pursuit of love we inevitably end up chasing our own tail. This is the sadness not of a cynic but of a true romantic.”
“Not since Monica Lewinsky’s thong almost toppled a presidency,” cracked Robert Dominguez in the New York Daily News, “has a pair of panties caused such a national fuss.”
Actors Comedy Lab presents The Underpants Friday-Saturday, July 15-16, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 17, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, July 20-23 and 27-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 24 and 31, at 3 p.m. in Thompson Theatre Studio, corner Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., N.C. State University, Raleigh, North Carolina. $8 Wednesday, $12 Thursday/Sunday, and $15 Friday-Saturday, with $2 discount Thursday-Sunday for NCSU TheatreFest Members. 919/515-1100. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. Steve Martin: http://www.stevemartin.com/. The Compleat Steve (Everything About Steve Martin): http://www.compleatsteve.com/writer/underpants_1.htm [inactive 10/05].