Wieners and panties. The words elicit at least a subdued smile from even the most mature adult. Steve Martin, a writer who leaves no comic stone unturned, moves effortlessly between silliness and sophistication in The Underpants, a play he adapted from Carl Sternheim's 1911 political satire Die Trousers. The energetic cast in this City Theatre production overcomes the most difficult obstacle of all: no air-conditioning in a stuffy third-floor theater. Their breezy performances transport us to 1910 Düsseldorf -- well, a Steve Martin version of that time and place -- where we meet the stereotypical mismatched married couple: Theo and Louise Maske. Theo (Jerry Russo) is a realist, a government clerk, a "good German man." His wife, Louise (Sarah Cannon), is a dreamer. He is the bombastic boss, she the unhappy servant -- and you just have to set aside any questions about why she agreed to marry him in the first place. The play is set into motion by Louise's errant underpants, which somehow fall down while the king's parade is passing by. The panty incident brings a series of potential renters to their home, most of whom are interested in glimpsing more of Louise's undergarments.
Louise is the most realistic character in this comic world, a woman who wants more out of life than cooking sausages for her husband and being the dutiful wife. Cannon invests her with a wistful sadness that fuels her growth into a smarter and more self-assured woman by the play's end. Her mentor (and provider of sexy lingerie) is the upstairs neighbor Gertrude, played with nonstop intensity by Lavonne Byers. Gertrude's entrance is a gust of brisk wind in the stale air of Louise and Theo's marriage. Russo plays the boorish chauvinistic pig Theo with broad comic strokes; he and Cannon embody not only two very different characters but also two very different acting styles -- physical comedy versus emotional realism.
Rounding out this exceptional cast are Matt Kahler, Gary Wayne Barker and Terry Meddows. Kahler plays poet Versati, a passionate playboy who seduces Louise with words and a tape measure (a comic delight). Barker is the hypochondriac barber Cohen, intent on saving Louise from Versati's lust while camouflaging his Jewish heritage. Meddows, as the mysterious scientist Klinglehoff, makes the most out of every second of stage time, scoring comedically with even the smallest gesture.
The Underpants has what Martin's earlier play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, was missing: a plot. But it's also missing what Picasso achieved: a satisfying ending. We care about Louise, and it makes no sense that she chooses to stay with the totally unlikable Theo. Even in 1910 there were other women (both on and off the stage) who were leaving their dictatorial husbands. Martin's weakly written ending brings in another love possibility for Louise, as the king (lured by Louise's naughty underpants) plays a surprise visit to the house to rent a room. But this production unwisely has Kahler portray the king as Versati in disguise, which makes no sense and pulls the audience out of the world of the play. As we're trying to work our way through the identity confusion, we miss Louise's final line, leaving everything muddled.
The ending clouds an otherwise remarkable production. Director William J. Whitaker keeps the nonstop exits and entrances flowing and the comic pacing crisp. Martin's humor moves quickly from clever wordplay to vaudeville physicality to fart jokes, and this cast takes it all in stride. (They even turned a potentially disastrous couch mishap into a comic gold mine.) Martin's social critiques -- it's a man's world; fame is fleeting; the Germans were wrong to hate Jews -- are unremarkable, but thankfully the commentary doesn't get in the way of the comedy. Even with its flawed ending, City Theatre's production of The Underpants is a sweet breeze of unexpected humor. Or as Versati might say, a marmalade in a world of jams.
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