Oh My! Did You See ‘The Underpants’?

Steve Martin sews the fabric of comedy into ‘The Underpants,’ his adaptation of a German farce, which opens Friday at the Hartford Stage.

"The Underpants" opens at the Hartford Stage on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 and runs through Feb. 9. Credit: Long Wharf Theatre
"The Underpants" opens at the Hartford Stage on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 and runs through Feb. 9. Credit: Long Wharf Theatre

By Jessie Sawyer

Don’t get caught with your pants down. Especially not your underpants. Otherwise, you never know what will unfold.

It would be ladylike for Louise Maske (Jenny Leona), the wife of a proper government clerk in Germany, to abide by the popular saying. If she didn’t, it would be a royal shame.

Or would it be?

“Did you see The Underpants?” is a question that has made its way from the German setting of Steve Martin’s adapted work to Connecticut. The play that Martin adapted from of Carl Sternheim’s Die Hose opens Friday at the Hartford Stage in collaboration with Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

The Story of 'The Underpants'

Maske, played by Julliard’s Leona, finds out that her wardrobe malfunction at a parade that the king is in becomes the gossip of the town.

During her short stint of fame, Maske’s life becomes undressed before her very eyes. Leona, who starred in the production of the show at Long Wharf this fall, takes us through her character’s emotional awakening. When Maske’s fallen underpants leave her vulnerable and exposed, the mask comes off of all of the characters as they dig into their passion and sense of self.  

Men show up out of the blue to rent a room in her house, or so they say. That includes romantic poet Frank Versati (Burke Moses, who also played Gaston in the Broadway, London and Los Angeles version of Beauty and the Beast), Benjamen Cohen (Steve Routman) – sorry, with a “K” – and German scientist Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff, who has been in The Merchant of Venice and Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and played Chef Max Bugnard in the movie, Julie & Julia and Judge Horn in television series Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Louise’s comically nosy and romantic neighbor Gertrude Deuter (Didi Conn, best known for her role as Frenchy in the movie, Grease) literally has to see what the talk of the town is all about and puts lustful ideas into her head about the whole affair. 

In the meantime, her husband, Theo Maske (Jeff McCarthy, who has played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway) seems to pull further and further away from her out of mortification, proclaiming, “I am a responsible wage earner, so I cannot have my underpants go plopping down…. Do not estimate a glimpse of a piece of lingerie.”

While we do not see “the event” involving “the underpants,” the characters tell us about what happened from multiple perspectives, spreading the news by word of mouth like the speedy crescendo of gossip.

Besides, it does not merely take a small mishap like the unexpected sight of Louise Maske’s underpants falling down for hilarity to rise. The laughter escalates because of what follows – how the underpants affect each of the characters.

From Conn’s dynamically funny reactions, teasing expressions and her character's lengthy decision about whether or not to have an affair of her own to Routman (who is in The Wolf on Wall Street and The Borne Legacy) attempting to climb stairs while his character is losing feeling in his legs, the actions speak as loudly as the words. So do the gestures.

A Steve Martin Twist on a German Farce

Steve Martin leaves the visual of Louise’s wardrobe malfunction up to the audience’s imagination, but does not hold back in the writing. He tastefully flirts with sensuality through a constant stream of sexual innuendos, witty wordplay and punchy comedic moments of dramatic irony. He’s not in the production appearing at the Hartford Stage, but it’s hard not to picture him on stage playing all the roles and saying the words that are classic Steve Martin humor.

“In other adaptations I have done – Cyrano De Bergerac became the film Roxanne, and Silas Marner became the film A Simple Twist of Fate – I have come to understand that however true I intend to remain to the original text, the adaptation is continuously influenced, altered, and redefined by modern times,” Martin said in a quote that appears in the playbill. “Each time, the process has taken me through the stages of a failing marriage: fidelity, transgression and finally separation.”

Though, he gives Sternheim, the original playwright, a playful nod with a reference to Die Hose, the inspiration for The Underpants, in the script. Conn delivers the inside joke.

The program for the show includes, not surprisingly, “a brief history of underpants” from the 1800s when women began wearing drawers, or “trouser-like” undergarments to lace-trimmed knickerbockers in 1879 to 1930s panties with elastic yarn that eliminated the need for tying ribbons or buttons. While the knee-length underpants in the play are from an older era, the story is relevant in the present day.

A moment of embarrassment, like a wardrobe malfunction, catches the attention of the public. But the 15 minutes of fame effect, whether shameful or addicting, is fleeting. As McCarthy’s Theo says, people move onto the next big event or scandal. 

Hartford Stage administrators were “horrified” when they “learned of plans for an ‘accidental’ wardrobe malfunction” during The Underpants rehearsals, noting in a press release that the stage company “does not condone wardrobe malfunctions of any kind.” But the artistic team worked with Long Wharf to bring the show to Hartford.

And this writer is glad they did.

The Underpants is directed by Long Wharf’s Gordon Edelstein and runs until Feb. 9. The show is just over an hour and a half long without an intermission.

Visit www.hartfordstage.com or call the Box Office at 860-527-5151 for more information on show times and tickets. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church St.


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