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Review: The Underpants at Playmakers

The theater stages Steve Martin’s farce

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The Underpants, a play by comedian Steve Martin and produced by Playmakers in Covington, makes me nostalgic for wardrobe malfunctions that don't violate public decency laws. Martin adapted its script from Die Hose, a farce conceived in 1910 by German playwright Carl Sternheim, which details the unraveling of a married woman who accidentally drops her drawers in the midst of a crowd watching a parade. Everyone in Dusseldorf begins gossiping, and her husband believes his reputation besmirched.

  In The Underpants, Louise Maske (Anysia Manthos Genre) is an ordinary housewife who, due to faulty fasteners, is thrust into the limelight as a minx. Two passersby become aroused after catching a glimpse of her bloomers and become boarders in her house to get a closer look. Frank Versati (Robert Fielding) and Benjamin Cohen (Ladson Poole) compete for the woman's attention while her husband Theobald (Allen Bryant) remains oblivious.

  Sternheim spotlighted the shallow morals of the bourgeoisie, who could be scandalized by a small faux pas. He broaches the subject of rigid, turn-of-the-century gender roles, which apply a double standard to men and women: Men's extramarital affairs are easily forgiven while women's are not. Louise views herself as little more than a dutiful wife and housekeeper until the two admirers, who wind up roommates, lust after her.

  It is almost impossible not to hear Martin's effusive voice and imagine his outlandish mannerisms when Versati, a poet wearing a cape, pines, "A man is not just a muscle. He's a brain and a heart." The Italian Versati believes, "Heroes are the thinkers, poets, painters and musicians," while the German Maske holds that a real man must take care of someone. In The Underpants, Maske tries to control his wife as Versati seduces her.

  Martin is best known as a comedian and actor, but also is a musician, novelist and producer. He explores the tension between artists and intellectuals in another of his plays, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in which Pablo Picasso meets Albert Einstein.

  This slapstick comedy would have benefited from more stage dynamics. Poole directs the work, and as Cohen, he did an impressive backflip over a railing — but landed on his back. Genre convincingly portrays a frumpy housewife, but not a temptress, which could be helped with a simple costume change. Versati's indeterminate accent is more Mexico City than Milan, though he delivers his romantic lines with great fervor. Supporting roles of nosy neighbor Gertrude Deuter (Jennifer Patterson) and a more level-headed tenant, Klinglehoff (Charlie Vaught), add to the fun.

  The Underpants is a madcap romp presented in the woods at Playmakers' vintage theater, and it feels like a trip back to a time when just the sight of a woman's bloomers could cause a sensation.

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