by Sally Mitani
The Underpants, playing at the Purple Rose through June 5, is based on an early-twentieth-century farce by an obscure German playwright, Carl Sternheim, resurrected and adapted by Steve Martin. Forget Sternheim, whoever he was. This version is pure Steve Martin, as you can tell by the title. Others have translated it as The Unmentionables or A Pair of Drawers, but Martin goes for the flatly obvious, in-your-face word that will never fail to crack up a four-year-old.
No matter what literary and dramatic heights Steve Martin scales, he will probably always first pop into our minds as the handsome white-suited buffoon who made "wild and crazy" an antonym of itself. He is actually a closet intellectual, wrapped in a bourgeois geniality, covered in a thick layer of silliness, and that's why his work is so much fun to watch. You never know quite what he's up to. Just when you're enjoying the slapstick physicality, he gets tasteful on you, and just when he's got you watching for meaning and subtext, he hands you a pratfall.
Dsseldorf in 1910 was a stifling and stratified society where people all knew their places to within the nearest millimeter the perfect setup for a farce. You don't actually see the incident that sets the play in motion: a pretty, flighty young housewife accidentally, if improbably, drops her drawers in public. The play opens as the flustered wife and her outraged husband return to their home, where they are trying to rent out a room. There is no shortage of applicants. Several boarders are stuffed into the house: the boarders want another glimpse, the husband wants the money, and the wife wants some attention.
The playwright, the actors, and director Anthony Caselli don't spoil the joke with earnest social commentary. Instead, The Underpants highlights the politics of the period by making the Jew a sniveling coward, the poet an airheaded poof, the women amoral sluts who entirely justify the lockdown policies of their husbands. The linchpin of this little collection of lovables is the husband, played by Wayne David Parker, whose portrayal of a self-satisfied, bullying, chauvinistic proto-Aryan is brilliantly inventive. Parker makes every one of Martin's lines sing, and he's a physical comedian on a par with Martin himself: one hilariously balletic bit he does with a footstool is worth the price of admission all by itself.
[Originally published in May, 2004.]
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