I just spent a night ruminating about early 20th-century German underpants. It’s not my fault. I blame society… and Carl Sternheim for writing The Underpants
… and Steve Martin for adapting it, and The Church Bistro & Theatre for producing it. But mostly, I blame society, because only societal forces could make such a fuss over sighting a pair of Bavarian bloomers. In this age of visible coin slots and the ubiquitous thong, it may
6pm dinner, 8pm show Fri-Sat; brunch from
9am, 2:30pm show
Sun Through Sep 10
$20 show only;
$36.95 w/ meal
Church Bistro & Theatre 1150 S. Alamo 271-7791
seem downright quaint for a comedy to revolve around visible underwear, but if you think we’re really less uptight about such things than Kaiser Wilhelm’s subjects, just think back to the ruckus caused by (and federal fines imposed due to) Janet Jackson’s infamous exposed breast.
The genius of Steve Martin’s clever adaptation of this 1910 comedy is the recognition that this kind of cultural shock creates celebrity, and that the lust for fame is as timeless as the lust for … underpants. Martin’s hand is chiefly noticeable in the dialogue, which is as witty as you would expect it to be, and when the characters stray into philosophical musings that echo similar themes from such original Martin plays as Picasso at the Lapin Agile
By the time Louise Maske (Eva LaPorte) asks her husband Theo (Ben Gamble) how he’d like his wiener grilled (sliced from tip to end, by the way) she is already famous enough (thanks to her treacherous underpants) to draw the attention of a poet (Tim Hedgepeth) and a barber (John Eubanks) who show up to rent the Maskes’ spare room. And thus, the farcical games begin: Louise wants to have an affair with the poet Versati, her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Mellissa Marlowe) wants a vicarious thrill, the barber Cohen wants Louise, Versati wants a muse, and Theo wants what every middle-class German bureaucrat wants: order. Needless to say, a variety of obstacles stand between these desires and fulfillment.
LaPorte is the play’s commanding presence, as she charms her way from innocence to coquetry with impeccable timing, physicality, and sparkling delivery. Her captivating personality makes it easy to see what the fuss is all about. “Go, make my panties!” she commands at one point. So it is written, so it shall be done.
LaPorte and Marlowe have the most natural chemistry, and they play well together as they plan Louise’s adultery. Ben Gamble’s Theo is thoroughly rigid without becoming unbelievably villainous, a difficult line to tread in a play that is very conscious of the later history of this brand of German character. There’s a direct line of descent from Theo Maske (funny) to Amon Goethe (decidedly unfunny). It would be easy to overplay or ignore the anachronisms, but Diane Malone’s deft direction treads the line and keeps the action hopping, to boot.
Tim Hedgepeth is amusingly flamboyant, but with a long pink scarf, plumed hat, and effeminate mannerisms, it’s difficult to believe Versati has any interest in Louise’s underpants — a puzzling costume choice that lends an air of futility to all of the adulterous machinations. The play is still funny, but the assault on Louise’s “virtue” is unconvincing. On the other hand, John Eubanks nearly steals the show with his rough earthiness and lack of affectation as the barber who can’t quite conceal his Jewishness.
By the time you walk out of the theater, it’s hard to believe you just spent all that time pondering underpants. And harder still to stop.