Steve Martin, of Saturday Night Live fame, knows how to tell a joke just right. Even bawdy ones, abounding with double entendres, in a German farce that airs out more than dirty laundry. In his adaptation of The Underpants, (Die Hose), written in 1910 by German playwright Carl Sternheim, Martin captures the satire of middle-class complacency that makes us laugh out loud at the power of celebrity.
Louise Maske (Allison McLemore) becomes the instant talk of Dusseldorf, and a celebrity of sorts, when a knot loosens and her bloomers fall to her ankles in public. She attracts sudden male suitors, anxious to become her lovers upsetting her husband, although not for reasons you’d expect. “I can’t believe this happened to me. How could your underpants just fall down?” cries Theo. What sends him over the edge is that the accident happened while she was within the king’s full view at the parade. Theo fears for his job as a government clerk.
Overall, what makes this silliness worth a go-and-see are the visual sight-gags and clock-like precision of Olney’s near-perfect acting ensemble. Under the skilled direction by John Going, the play becomes a rapid-fire farce, highlighting tour-de-force acting. James Beneduce as Theo, the exercise freak who neglects his wife, is so athletically good with push-ups and handstands he could make most males in the audience head for the gym. Played with bombastic bluster, Theo is a financially-squeezed klutz, who exploits his wife’s fame to prove his male superiority and make money.
When an ethereal poet Frank Versati and the shy town barber Benjamin Cohen arrive as prospective boarders, things get hotter than the smoking wieners burning in the oven. (There’s a double entendre to out-classic them all.) Theo splits the extra bedroom and rents it to two. Two rivals under the same roof? Theo is set up by the playwright to be cuckolded. At the same time, his sweet, submissive wife says she would love to get pregnant and have a child. There you have it, a heated situation, ripe to explode.
What makes Martin a great comic writer is the way he infuses Sternheim’s simple but tightly-knotted plot with complex characters. Off-Broadway actress Allison McLemore who plays Louise does a good job in developing the character of a repressed woman, who blooms and slowly comes to life. The obsessive-compulsive poet Versati, played by multi-talented Jeffries Thaiss, known for his debonair polish in many Olney hits from 13 Rue de L’Amour to Mouse Trap, isn’t just a cad on the make. Versati, tells Louise “I want to sleep with you. It will only take a minute,” but reaches for his pen instead. When the sexually-starved and finally-aroused Louisa cries out, “Take me,” Versati responds passionately, “Yes, I’ll take you and transform you into words.”
The second suitor, Benjamin Cohen, (Bruce Nelson), who asks that his name be written on a lease with a Germanic K instead of a C, a dart aimed at the unpleasant anti-Semitism of the time, imagines himself as Tristan, Wagner’s operatic hero who dies of altruistic love for Isolde. It’s the incomparable Bruce Nelson who gives an over-the-top, slapstick performance as a bumbling hypochondriac whose legs give out, as if he has no skeleton at all. Nelson staggers and stumbles across stage as if all joints are loose hinges. When he crawls on his knees like a delirious, soul-eyed, love-sick puppy, to prove his mildly demented devotion to his ideal of womanhood, Nelson is a reincarnation of Hollywood silent screen star, Harold Lloyd, famous for whole body acting with acrobatic ease. (Remember that frozen film frame of Lloyd hanging from the hand of a clock?) Nelson does everything but hang from the cuckoo clock to win Louise’s attention.
Gertrude, the matchmaking fairy godmother from upstairs who’s conveniently a pantaloon-sewing seamstress, is played with sardonic, sweeping grandeur and needling wit by Joan Rosenfels. She comes in with sleeping potions and all sorts of zany advice. Gertrude is hell-bent on Louise having an affair. But Theo has intrigues of his own. “Desire adjusts morality,” the tyrant declaims as he turns his monstrous libido on Gertrude. Beneduce, who plays the scene with wild-eyed intent, is hilarioius.
Yes, there’s a golden moment of rebellion when Louise at last hangs her apron around Theo’s neck and leaves but is it forever? Why doesn’t she just keep on going and follow the example of Nora, in Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House? Sternheim isn’t Ibsen who’s trying to start a revolution. Evidently Martin respects that point of view. Conformity seems easier for Louise; because she has no place to go, really, but she’s sure had a taste of freedom. We’re left with the feeling that her tempest in a stove pot will continue.
James Wolk, that wonderful set designer with international credits, backs up this whimsical satire with a comfy, cozy set, complete with quaint roofline from a Dusseldorf street.
With a sharp poke in the ribs, Martin uses material that seems fresh from New York’s Yiddish Theatre. The Underpants becomes a penetrating but gentle push for social justice, especially for women. Has Louise started a fad so that even the emperor, who does wear clothes, craves a new pair of drawers? At the end, which I won’t tell you, all the loose strings tie together in a neat little knot. And that’s not fooling. It’s just plain fun.
More perfect timing: In the New Main Stage lobby are the metal fabric undergarments hanging from a 30-ft. clothesline: a wire-screen corset, trouser-like bloomers, and briefs, a sculpture by Joyce Zipperer. “Unmentionables….Then and Now,” is meant to be a humorous history of underwear and women’s liberation from Victorian confinement. It was banned from exhibition in the downtown D.C. office building, Washington Square, but fortunately found a safe home here.
Running Time: 90 minutes. No intermission.
When: Performances take place until Oct. 19. Evenings: Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat at 8:00 p.m.; Sun, 7:30 p.m., except Oct. 19; additional performance on Tues., Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees: Wed, Sat. and Sun. 2 p.m., except Oct. 8. Olney offers special performances that include Sign Interpretation, on Thurs., Oct. 9 at 8:00 p.m. and Audio Descriptions on Wed., Oct. 8, at 8 p.m.
Where: Olney Theatre Center, on the New Main Stage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland 20832, located just north of Washington, D.C., 1¼ mile from the intersection of Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Rte. 108) and Georgia Ave. (Rte. 97). Free parking.