Friday, March 12, 2004

Underpants (Cleveland Play House)

Cleveland Play House drops its ‘UNDERPANTS’

Steve Martin is one of the crown-princes of off-the-wall comedy. He leaves no schtick unturned to get a laugh. It is no surprise, therefore, that when he came upon Carl Steinheim’s 1910 farcical play, ‘THE UNDERPANTS’ he thought, “Here’s a cabbage right for slawing.”

The story centers on an incident when a woman's underpants fall down in public while she is attending a parade for the king. The result is newfound fame for the woman and over-blown frustration for her husband. It also is an opening for Martin to pick up the play’s underlying themes of German excess and go with it. He probes German inflexibility and prudishness, anti-Semitism (one character insists that his Cohen named is spelled with a “K” and that kosher is spelled with a “C”), the male attitude of superiority over women, and a false Germanic sense of propriety.

When the jokes are bawdy, the play is reminiscent of the Steve Martin we know from ‘THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.’ When at its most ironic, flashes of his recent hit movie ‘CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN’ appear. Martin uses the original story to make leaps into both the ridiculous and academic when he mocks the very fabric of marriage and society, at least Germanic nuptials and society.

To make this play work takes a keen sense of comedic timing, consistency of characterizations, and presenting lines so believably that they become farcically hysterical. It is in these elements that the Cleveland Play House production is lacking. Under the often ill-conceived directing of Peter Hackett, accents (one can only wonder why they were used at all), come and go. Actors change pacing and characterization in mid-sentence. The constant screaming becomes ear piercing. The pacing varies from hysterical to languid. Laughs are lost due to poor line interpretation. The results? The play which a New York critic called “The funniest play in town” becomes less than could be expected. That’s not to say this production lacks laughs. Some are there. Just not as many as there could have been, nor in a format that grabs and holds the whole audience.

Chaz Mena, as the husband, yells his way through the first part of the play and then has a total character change for the second segment. His German accent vanishes, then returns, then vanishes again. Tanya Clarke, as his wife Louise, never seems involved in the goings on. Johanna Morrison is absolutely wonderful as the interfering neighbor. She, along with Brad Bellamy as Cohen, one of the men who is infatuated by Louise, are the production’s highlights. Sam Gregory, as one of the other renters, begins well and then seems to get lost in who his character is, what he represents.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The CPH production of ‘THE UNDERPANTS’ is less than could be desired. As the man sitting next to me kept saying to his wife, as he squirmed in his seat, “When is this thing going to end?”