What lies beneath


The Underpants


Written by Carl Sternheim

Adapted by Steve Martin

Directed by Seth Soloway

The Gallery Players (www.galleryplayers.com)

199 14th Street, Brooklyn

Equity Showcase (through September 28, 2008)

Review by Judd Hollander


The Galley Players presents an enjoyable diversion with Carl Sternheim's 1910 work, The Underpants, a piece that combines elements of the risqué and the farcical (with just a hint of melodrama thrown in), winningly adapted by Steve Martin.


In 1910 Düsseldorf, Germany, Theo Maske (Justin Herfel) a staid, orderly government clerk, is in a panic. It seems that during a parade in honor of the King, Theo's wife Louise (Catia Ojeda), in trying to get a better view, climbed on top of a bench and moved her body in a certain way to cause the underpants beneath her dress to come loose and slide to the ground. Though she picked them up quickly and immediately departed the scene, the falling of her garments and what it revealed was seen by quite a number of those present at the event and is now a hot topic of gossip in the city. Theo, however, seems to be more concerned over what this embarrassing incident will do to his own reputation rather that of his wife.


Soon after, two gentlemen arrive to rent the extra room the couple has available for rent. The prospective tenants are a poet named Frank Versati (Nat Cassidy), a dashing lothario (a combination Snidely Whiplash and Don Juan) who quickly sets Louise's heart (and other areas) aflutter; and Benjamin Cohen (Jason Schuchman), a hypochondriacal barber, whose name, he keeps insisting, is spelled "Kohen with a 'K'". In actuality, Versati and Cohen have actually come to seduce Louise, each having witnessed her wardrobe malfunction at the parade earlier that day. This turn of events delights Louise's friend Gertrude (Amy L. Smith), the Maske's upstairs neighbor (and a bit of a busybody) who would love to see Louise have an illicit affair or two. (Louise and Theo last had sex on their wedding night almost exactly one year ago.)


Through a bit of farcical mix-up Louise winds up having promised the room to Versati, while Theo offers it to Cohen, with neither of the Maskes first checking with the other. Not wanting to give up rent from both tenants, Theo proposes that the prospective boarders share the room. Since Versati and Cohen each want to get to know Louise much better, they both agree to the plan.


However Louise soon finds that what she wants (be it to be left alone or to have a marital fling) soon pales in regards to what the males in her orbit desire. (The central theme of the play being that women were pretty much relegated to the back burner in terms of wants, needs and decisions and only existed to take care of the men in their lives.) Theo, for example, has the couple's entire life planned out, to the point of announcing when the couple has made enough money to afford to have children, and how and when the process of consummation will take place. At the same time Theo is not averse to a little extracurricular activity of his own, as he tells Gertrude when he tries to have his way with her. The same is true with Versati and Cohen, both of whom throw themselves at Louise, never really considering her feelings in the matter. Even when she reciprocates with one of them, a sudden verbal eruption of inspiration from the male in question just might wind up leaving Louise stranded high and dry. In the end, Louise learns that in order to be more than the proverbial doormat for every Tom, Dick and Harry (or in this case every Theo, Frank and Benjamin), she must follow the recognized rules of society and use her womanly wiles covertly in order to get what she desires, if not the respect that she craves.


Running a brisk 90 minutes, the play presents a satirical look at society where the repressed and the free spirited dwell side by side. Filled with double and triple innuendos and deadpanned jokes about sex, the script attacks the holier-than-thou attitude of both groups, showing them up for the hypocrites they can often be. Great credit goes to Martin, who keeps the humor and sharp edges of the original script while making the work accessible to a new generation of theatergoers.


Casting is excellent. Ojeda give a nice performance as Louise, a woman, pretty in a plain sort of way, who suddenly become an object of gossip and desire and through it all, undergoes both a sexual and intellectual awakening. Herfel is good as her husband, a stern yet bombastic man, who takes great delight is spouting much of the sexist and chauvinistic philosophy of the time. He's also so sure of his place in the world that he is completely oblivious to what's going on around him. (In other hands the character could easily be a cuckolded object of ridicule. Yet because Louise is so browbeaten in the beginning, this premise never enters the picture.) Herfel's only flaw is that he tends to overact a bit with gestures, i.e. shaking his fist in rage or laughing a bit too loud and long at his own jokes, a fault which lies with both the actor's portrayal and in Seth Soloway's direction. This is one of Soloway's only missteps in the play, which otherwise is a masterpiece of comic timing and satirical lessons on the relationship between the sexes.


One person who does overplay his role (and does it to absolutely brilliant effect) is Cassidy, as Versati. A foppish vain fool, the character speaks in passionate, clipped sentences with appropriate, over-the-top dramatic gestures (all played perfectly straight). He's also someone who will drop whatever he's doing (including Louise) in order to put pen to paper when he gets the spirit. A delightful scene-chewing character, one can't help but think he will end up alone and impoverished in his old age.


Schuchman works well as Cohen, the character a nod by Sternheim to the anti-Semitism that existed when the play was first written. A weakling and a whiner, and seemingly an object of ridicule, Cohen ends up having the most depth of the any of the men portrayed, and could easily become Louise's confidante, if he could just get over his terrible jealousy of Versati and his obsession with Louise's panties.

Elsewhere, Smith is fine as Gertrude, a worldly-wise friend of Louise, and Peter Levine has some nice comic moments as the elderly Klinglehoff, another prospective tenant.


The sets by Stephen K. Dobay are suitably austere, probably just what as a person such as Theo would have in his home, given his current economic status. Costumes by Danielle L. Schembre are very good, and lighting and sound design (by Tony Alaska and Ned Thorne respectively) work well.


In all his pontificating, Theo makes an important point -- noting that the reason men get married is so they can have someone to take care of. But when all is said and done, the question remains: What if the other person in the relationship has a different idea of what "being taken care" of means?


Also in the cast are DaVonne Bacchus and Dennis Michael Keefe.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 1

Acting: 2

Sets: 1

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 1


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander


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