It’s easy to imagine what might have attracted Steve Martin to Carl Sternheim’s 1911 comedy Die Hose. The title, which refers to the play’s jumping-off point, is wonderfully absurd and suggestive, like so much of Martin’s comedic work. Louise Maske stretches to see the King during a parade, and her bloomers fall to her feet. Her husband Theo, a low-level government functionary, is appalled when he learns what happened (he thinks he’ll be fired), while Louise’s upstairs neighbor is thrilled for the excitement. Soon, men are vying to rent a room in the Maskes’ apartment.
In a way, The Underpants is a companion piece to Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, which played at Syracuse Stage last February and also starred Marianna McClellan. Both plays are interested in female longing, set in a distant past that echoes present-day repressions. In the Next Room was exquisite, deeply funny and achingly romantic; The Underpants is a louder, broader comedy, a door-slamming farce as opposed to Ruhl’s emotional ballet. In that sense it’s unfair to compare the two, except McClellan, as Louise, provides such an intriguing link between the productions. It’s as if her sexual agency were a force of its own, transcending plays and even playwrights, insisting on acknowledgment, to be loved.
Bill Fennelly’s direction is brisk and confident, integrating the performers and various technical elements in a not-quite slick presentation (I thought Fennelly’s award-winning work on last season’s Hairspray tipped the other way; this production is an improvement, in my opinion.) In some ways, it might be too good – afterward, I wondered why I hadn’t laughed more, and why so little of the dialogue stayed with me. It’s the material: Sternheim’s scenario might have been scandalous in 1911, but his resolution is conventional; in the end the heroine resumes her place in male-dominated society, where she’s mostly content after finally scoring an afternoon romp with her husband. None of the men are required to change – their gross obliviousness is unchallenged. We don’t root for the couple – we want better for Louise, which might not have occurred to Sternheim but is certainly within Martin’s sympathies (to wit, his screenplay for Roxanne.)
William Bloodgood’s set is great, employing exaggerated perspective to suggest a tiny, drab apartment that highlights the fluidly inventive blocking and choreography. Although this joins a long string of exceptional sets at Syracuse Stage, I liked how Bloodgood’s concept worked to support the movement and the lighting, while providing both a visual and thematic frame (it suggests both vaudeville and 1950s sitcoms.) Raquel Barreto’s costumes manage the interesting task of being at once drab, funny, and even romantic while consistently reminding us of time and place (1910 Dusseldorf). Thom Weaver’s lighting provides brilliant definition although it’s sometimes too bright; he also favors a follies pink for certain moments, which I found distracting. (The garish color is justified emotionally; I would have preferred a more Germanic hue, or something prevalent in the set/costumes. Weaver’s design echoes his SALT-nominated work for last season’s Hairspray, and my quibbles are certainly nitpicks.)
Marianna McClellan is perfection as Louise, luminous and funny, channeling a yearning, generous spirit that seems beyond the script. (I think I’d like her to appear in everything I see from now on, yes please.) Mark David Watson is a great physical presence as Theo, and I was particularly impressed at his vocal command – although he seemed to be shouting his lines (in character), it rarely felt oppressive (we didn’t feel yelled at, just registered the effect.) Daniel Passer, in a dual role as Versati and The King, moves like Steve Martin the performer (as opposed to the playwright) – he’s at once elegant and clumsy, and he’s able to tap into the same laughs Martin often does, playing one of his glorious fools.
The Underpants is a great kickoff to a new season. The theatrical craft on display is top notch, the performances are all good, and frequently inspired. If they’re in service of a second rate Steve Martin script, that’s still better than a lot of what’s out there. Afterward, what I heard most was, “That was crazy.” Crazy’s good, I even saw a bit of wild. No excuses – give it a shot.