I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my brain around the Workhouse Theatre Co.’s production of “The Underpants.” (And no, I don’t think it’s because I have to keep constructing sentences with the word “underpants” in them due to the title. A play called “Moist Panties” maybe, but just underpants, not so much.)
Let’s start with the basics. It’s a comedy. Is it funny? Very much so.
The script is comedian/playwright Steve Martin’s adaptation of the 1910 social satire by German playwright Carl Sternheim. In the play, unhappily married wife Louise Maske (Lindsay Timmington) has just had the misfortune of having her underpants fall down about her ankles in public just as the King’s procession is parading by. Her boorish husband Theo (Dan Peltzman) is convinced his own reputation will be ruined.
Instead, the room the Maske’s have for rent in their home gets its own parade of would-be renters, most of whom just want to get a little closer to the infamous woman of the moment. There is Frank Versati, the poet (Dan Hylton); Benjamin Cohen, the closeted Jew (Jason Vogen); and Klinglehoff, the bewildered man who just wants a room and has no idea what the heck is going on. Even the King (Jeremy Motz) makes a last minute deus ex machina appearance. Louise’s upstairs neighbor and partner in crime Gertrude (Shana Eisenberg) is more than happy to encourage Louise in plotting an affair - or two.
So what’s my hesitation? Probably just one of expectation. While this is a script by Steve Martin, writer of such plays as “Wasp” and “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” (both of which I liked quite a lot), “The Underpants” isn’t the same kind of play. Rather than being a Martin original, this is instead Steve Martin’s interpretation of Carl Sternheim’s play. It’s clearly a good match of source material and adapter. It’s easy to see why Martin was drawn to it. One can see Martin’s style, intelligence, and signature brand of humor peaking through all over the place. But while the play takes swipes at things like objectification and oppression of women, and the overall hypocrisy of the system of gender roles, “The Underpants” is essentially a bedroom farce. Though a lot of the issues addressed are just as relevant today as in 1910 when it was first presented in Germany, it’s not the usual Steve Martin play of ideas masquerading as entertainment. It’s simply entertainment. Does it succeed on that level? Most definitely.
Workhouse Theatre Co. is settling nicely into their new home at The Warren. In a former garage bookended on either side by a photography studio and an art gallery, Workhouse’s small triangular stage tucked in the corner utilizes the space remarkably well. The set design by Sarah J. Leigh makes the most of a snug situation. A set with walls and three frequently used doors wedges into a space I wouldn’t have thought possible. The architectural logic of the set sometimes made me scratch my head a little, but the use of those three doors was consistent, and extremely funny. Suspension of disbelief applies to buildings, too. The props in such a tight space need to be well-chosen and not too numerous. Norma Peterson and Jane O’Brien’s work with prop design added just the right accents to help define but not overwhelm the space, or slow the action between scenes.
In a comedy as broad and bawdy as this, the supporting players wind up with a lot of the flashier scene-stealing moments. Shana Eisenberg as the naughty instigator Gertrude is a lot of fun to watch in action. Gertrude cares for her friend and wants Louise to stand up for herself, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a good time living vicariously through her friend’s sudden glut of romantic options. Dan Hylton as Versati the poet is delightfully over-the-top with his persistent wooing of Louise. Benjamin Cohen is one of the worst liars ever, but Jason Vogen makes you believe that he somehow pulls off his masquerade in spite of himself through sheer determination. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the people he’s trying to fool aren’t all that bright themselves. Robert Larsen gets a wonderful supporting role in Klingelhoff. He gets to walk in and reap the benefits of all the lunacy that has gone before, and Larsen works it for all its worth, nearly stealing the show in its closing minutes.
It is sometimes a thankless task to be placed in the center of such a whirlwind of silliness. Every story needs a character to act as an anchor, but that role isn’t always quite as fun to perform. Lindsay Timmington does a good job of eliciting sympathy for the put-upon Louise. Timmington’s portrayal of a woman slowly coming to grips with her newfound status as the town’s unwitting sex symbol - and all the opportunities it presents - is amusing to see unfold. It is at the very end, however, when Louise is putting one over on the befuddled Klingelhoff, that Timmington really comes into her own. Using her assigned place in society - as the meek little woman - to throw a potentially troubling tenant off guard and take the upper hand in the situation, is a nice payoff to Louise’s journey. As Louise’s insufferable husband Theo, Dan Peltzman is unrelenting in his portrait of one of the most selfish husbands ever. The only good thing you can say about the man is that he doesn’t beat his wife - physically anyway. While he doesn’t get the full comeuppance one might like to see onstage, it is satisfying to know that his world is nothing like he actually believes it to be in his head.
Director Chris McGahan really puts his cast through their paces. A production like this succeeds or fails based on whether or not it can keep moving at a brisk clip. McGahan and his crew wisely keep the action going almost non-stop, with just the briefest of pauses between scenes. Having a small space to fill with a half dozen characters works to the production’s advantage. Everyone is always just moments away from being caught - well, with their pants down, sometimes quite literally. One wrong move and the whole thing could come undone. It is most entertaining watching them all walk the tightrope together and try not to fall off. The preshow music of the soundtrack from old cartoons is especially apt. “The Underpants” is a solid production of a very funny play.
“The Underpants” and Workhouse Theatre are well worth the trip. And really, it’s not much of trip outside the usual downtown theatrical haunts. I tend to get lost at the drop of a hat, and I found The Warren with no trouble at all. A quick hop on and off 94W, and you’re practically there. The Warren is on the corner of 44th and Osseo (4400 Osseo, Minneapolis). The production continues through February 23, 2008. Evening shows Thursday through Saturday this week (2/14-16) and Friday and Saturday next week (2/22 & 23) at 7:30pm. For reservations and more information, call 612-386-5763, or visit www.workhousetheatre.org
Cross posted to www.myspace.com/matthewaeverett and archived on my site www.matthewaeverett.com