Monday, April 04, 2011

The Underpants

THE UNDERPANTS don’t quite stay up at Beck

Steve Martin, author of THE UNDERPANTS, now in production at The Beck Center for the Arts, is known as a comedian and outrageous funnyman. His writing in THE UNDERPANTS is true to Martin: daffy, ridiculous and overdone.

It is ironic that DIE HOSE, the play on which the Martin script is based, was a controversial play by Carl Sternheim. Sternheim was one of the leading writers in the German Expressionism movement, which many credit with laying the foundation for modern theatre. When it opened in 1910, DIE HOSE was so controversial that it was banned by the German government and, eventually led to Sternheim permanently leaving the country. Sternheim's purpose in writing the script was to satirize the government, middle class morality and conformity.

According to a German commentary, DIE HOSE “centers on a married German couple and the scandal that follows after the wife's underpants fall down in public, as they wait to see the king passing by in a parade. The incident embarrasses the usually inattentive husband and makes the wife an unwitting object of desire. In fact, shortly after the parade, two men come to the couple's home, ostensibly to rent a room, but are really interested in wooing the wife.”

The Martin plot is basically the same, except that he has turned the satire into a full-blown melodramatic farce. Everything is overblown. Matthew Earnest, the director of the Beck production, builds upon the modern author's concept and lets loose with bizarre accents, melodramatic double takes, prancing actors, and feigned emotions and gestures. All that's missing is the mustached villain and impending death on the railroad tracks that were so common in old time melodramas and non-talky films.

Katie Nabors is sweet as the frustrated wife whose underwear falls. We never find out which country and when the play takes place, though Martin does indicate that this is “a spoof of the American middle class.” To add to the confusion, at least in this production, the accents, setting and clothing are anything but American middle class.

Female members of the audience, at least during the production I saw, vocally hissed at the many chauvinistic lines which stressed traditional male views concerning the role of women as housekeepers and order followers. They laughed at pronouncements of what makes for a “real” man.

Greg Violand carefully overdoes the role of Theo, an uptight government employee, to the degree that he is hysterically funny. We laugh with him, not at him, the sign of a good farcical performance. Sally Groth, as the interfering upstairs maiden lady, picks up Violand's tone, and makes the role into a show highlight.

Unfortunately, the other members of the cast aren't up to Violand and Groth's level and stay on the performance surface, often faking their performances. Kevin Charnas, flounces around the stage as Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish barber with an accent that sometimes sounds New Joisey, sometimes mock Eastern European and at other times is unidentifiable. His character development is as schizophrenic as his accent. Randy Muchowski adequately portrays a young artistic poet, but misses out on both laughs and emotional development due to his inconsistent character concept, while Mark Seven, as the scientist Klinglehoff, never does establish a clear identity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE UNDERPANTS will amuse some and frustrate others. The fact that the farce/melodrama development doesn't always work is a combination of the lack of abilities of some of the cast and the inconsistency in directorial concepts.