The streak is broken. Playwright David Ives’ winning series of brilliant, hilarious “transladaptations” performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) over the last decade ground to a creaking, impotent halt with his latest, The Panties, the Partner and the Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class.
In retrospect, the labored, pretentious title should’ve been a warning.
Ives, the STC and STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn have rightly enjoyed piles of praise for resurrecting Baroque-era comedies into The Liar (2010), The Heir Apparent (2011) The Metromaniacs (2015) and The School for Lies (2017) to great effect. The clever, charming remodels are exemplars of intellectual farce, lightning-fast frolics of high, low and everything-in-between comedy.
So, it made great sense to give it one more go for Kahn’s farewell season at the STC after more than three decades at the helm. This time, Ives set his high-powered and keen intelligence to customizing the obscure social satires of German playwright Carl Sternheim (1878-1942) to our own times. He specifically reworked a trilogy of plays tracing the audacious rise of a petit bourgeois family to barons of industry at the dawn of a cataclysm (the First World War) they have participated in creating.
Each act of The Panties, the Partner and the Profit corresponds to one each of Sternheim’s three-play cycle, but the scene has been moved and updated—beginning in Boston on the Fourth of July in 1950, through a 1987 visit to Wall Street in time for Black Monday and closing on an alternative future in Malibu just over the pixelated horizon.
Ives decided to chronicle the story of one family’s upward mobility (“an American story if I’ve ever heard one,” he said) as a statement on the destructive evils of materialism and capitalism. The realization of the American Dream as Doomsday. The three acts serve as playlets, weakly connected to one another but all in service to the Big Idea (profit is bad) in varying proportion.
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The Masks, Joseph (Carson Elrod) and Louise (Kimberly Gilbert), and the incident which sparks the future is introduced in Act I. That is, Louise loses her panties on the Boston Common during a holiday parade. Well, she didn’t lose them, they fell down, she insists. But before you know it an unlikely pair of petitioners appear: cock-of-the-walk Jock Revere (Tony Roach) of the “Paul Revere Reveres” and sickly Benjamin Mandelshtam (Kevin Isola), both provoked by Louise’s fallen undies and unyielding in their desire to stake a claim to her. Suggestive of a lost “Honeymooners” episode written on LSD, the players, including sex-starved homebody Trudy Reeznor (Julia Coffey) shout, slam doors and bounce around in typical farcical fashion. It’s easygoing, with a few good laughs, if not especially effective.
Act II features Christian Mask (Isola), repping the next generation as an amoral striver vested in the pilothouse of the beast itself, a financial investment firm during the Street’s 1980s heyday. Feeling like an off-kilter knockoff of a “Dallas” or “Dynasty” episode, young Christian juggles his parents of whom he is ashamed (Elrod and Gilbert reprising aged versions of their earlier roles); the frenzied Sybil Rittenhouse (Coffey), his own personal Pygmalion; and William Hamilton (Roach), the man he must convince of his worthiness in order to continue his upward climb.
This skit is the strongest of the three, probably the funniest and most clearly makes the point that Ives wants to make: the pursuit of wealth and position becomes all-consuming to the point where financial calculations supersede all else.
The next generation of Masks, trillionaire sisters Louise (Gilbert) and Ursula (Turna Mete) are the bearers of the unholy family fortune in Act III just as the cosmic bill for humanity has come due. Lounging in a Pacific Palisades Philippe Starck-like spaceship sanctuary, the ensemble stumble through the End of Days via some awkward moralizing from Ives, a disembodied voice, a humdinger of a harbinger in the form of a sea serpent and a plate of sliced papaya.
The Panties, the Partner and the Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class
closes January 6, 2019
Details and tickets
The last act is a drag on the whole, and a sour note to end on because even half-bad farce is preferable to simple-minded moralism. This is when the Big Idea is supposed to blow your head back and prick your conscience, but the thematic goods are never convincingly delivered.
The ensemble is terrific however, playing a variety of characters in each act. In sync with hair, make-up and costumes by Frank Labovitz, Gilbert transforms her demeanor and delivery from the endearingly ditzy housewife in Acts I and II to her oblivious granddaughter in a sexy-silly sendup in Act III. Elrod is strong, too, in the dual roles of the foppish cuckold Joseph in the first two acts and the homeless conspiracist muttering about “the Deep State” in the final act.
I was hoping the final Ives-Kahn STC collaboration would end with a grand slam but The Panties, the Partner and the Profit falls short swinging. The play’s biggest problem may be in trying to cater to the Big Idea. Ives’ celebrated repackaging of classic funnyworks for a YouTube-era palette lacked comparable ambition. The previous Ives-Kahn team-ups were extraordinary as displays of language, but the satire remained simple and the farce silly. This time around, the message is didactic and heavy-handed when it can be heard at all above the nonsense, and the comedy (usually a sure thing) only lands about half the time.
Ives typically sprays comedy like a machine gun, challenging the audience to keep up, and the payoff had previously been a marvel to feast on if you could catch it. With any throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach the rewards can be uneven, but this go-around the writing feels especially reaching and desperate. For his part, Kahn sets a snappy pace as director until the third act, when the play’s motor starts to sputter and eventually fizzles out under its own weighty aimlessness.
The Panties, the Partner and the Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class by David Ives. Inspired by the work of Carl Sternheim. Directed by Michael Kahn. Featuring Carson Elrod, Kimberly Gilbert, Julia Coffey, Tony Roach, Kevin Isola and Turna Mete. Scenic designer: Alexander Dodge. Costume designer: Frank Labovitz. Lighting designer: Nancy Schertler. Original music and sound designer: Elisheba Ittoop. Stage manager: Joseph Smelser. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
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