What Went Up Comes Down With an Oops and Big Laughs: THE UNDERPANTS at Footlighters
The business of theatre is the stuff of high drama itself. As Philip Henslowe says in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, the normal state of theatre productions is one of “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” And yet, he says, there is nothing to be done, because “strangely enough, it all works out.” How? He shrugs. “Dunno. It’s a mystery.”
The story of the Footlighters Theater of Berwyn’s production of THE UNDERPANTS is an extraordinary case in point. Of the eight who comprised the original cast members plus director, four who appeared on the stage, including the director, were not on the original roster. The final cast member was placed only ten days ago. Cast members were precipitously sent out of state by their paying jobs or sent to the hospital for emergency surgery. One role was cast three times. The first time the entire cast was able to assemble in one place was the first technical rehearsal last week.
And yet, strangely enough, it all worked out so well as to give 26 of us a ribald and rollicking good time, including a lovely, comically choreographed scuffle and a pair of underpants in the colors of the German flag (possibly a tribute to the number of times, if not the splendor of ceremony, wherein underpants rise and fall in this tale).
THE UNDERPANTS is Steve Martin’s deliciously bawdy adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 satire of pretentious, hypocritical middle class sexual mores, Die Hose. Set in Dusseldorf at the turn of the 20th Century, it pokes first fun at Theo Maske, played with smug propriety and what can only be called bureaucratic lechery by Randy Weinstein. Theo is an anonymous under-assistant clerk in the King’s government. He longs for anonymity, and, until recent events, had as much of it as he wanted.
But now Theo has been noticed, and Weinstein bleats out his distress at scrutiny in triplicate and using the correct forms. The word “cheap” does not begin to do justice to his approach to money. He takes his wife for granted. And, to top it off, he has advertised a room in the apartment for rent.
His wife, Louise, played with innocent lust in fine, comic turns by Alexis Leigh Ross, trails dutifully behind him. Longing for love but receiving only sausage, she survives her husband’s rants on frugality by zoning out and fantasizing romantic seductions. Ross is seamless in giving us a Louise who arcs from innocence to a mature sense of herself and her sex, showing impeccable timing and physical grace in her comedy. We can easily believe she is distracted enough to neglect the tiny detail which launches the notoriety which has Theo so distraught.
To put it discreetly, she forgot to knot her underdrawers. At a public event, Louise’s undergarments descend unbidden under her skirt, and she is spotted in flagrante by a lusty array of motivated men. The hijinks begins as each unintentional bloomer voyeur shows up in turn at her door wishing to take the room for rent. Their motives are clear to everyone but the husband, his eyes alight with the rent money. While they preen and fawn at his Louise, Theo welcomes them with open arms and forces his wife’s domestic attentions on them as part of the service. He admonishes Louise to be diligent in “servicing these men.”
Knocking first is profligate artist Frank Versati, delivered with smarmy, energetic charm by Tab Baker. Versati describes himself as a poet whose proudest achievement is to remain unpublished. Others describe him as someone who “. . . will not put off until tomorrow that which he can sleep with today.” Baker gives us a Versati to whom sex and love are deep and eternal. . . for the moment.
Next comes Benjamin K/Cohen—spelled either with a “C” or a “K” depending on who is in the room–the hypochondriacal barber, trimmed out for us meticulously by Alan Mennig. C/Kohen overhears Versati planning this seduction as he is dying Versati’s hair. Mr. Mennig shows us a hero determined to protect the innocent damsel, a knight –with a “k”—who charges in but then needs to sit down for a moment and catch his breath because, as he tells us, his “health is poor.” Mennig renders K/Cohen with the wizened mastery of a seasoned Catskills stand-up, a most apt image for the character, and gets big laughs as a foil to Theo’s pecuniary pomposity and Versati’s peripatetic passions.
The third knock is from Klinglehoff, the constipated scientist, deftly titrated for us by David Richmond. Klinglehoff is the only one in the play who knows nothing about the fallen underpants. He doesn’t want to know. Richmond provides a Klinglehoff who keeps his mind pure, clinging to a science book throughout as he declaims that he has “left whole continents” when someone tried to engage him in discussions of sex and love. You do not want to miss an angry Louise mistaking him for another lecherous suitor, flashing him in defiance then convincing him he imagined it all when she realizes her mistake.
Rounding out the crew is a character familiar to anyone who’s seen a sitcom. Gertrude, the nosy, brassy upstairs neighbor, is gifted to us in a comic gem of a performance by Leah Stern. Sexually frustrated and fearing she is over the hill, Gertrude decides to get her gratification by assisting Louise to take a lover and glorying vicariously in the details. Unexpectedly finding herself the object of amorous advances, Stern shows us a Gertrude locked in the horns of a dilemma, agonizing “. . . I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, yes, but on the other hand, why not?” May all our moral quandaries resolve with such grace.
There are jewels in this play. You don’t want to miss Stern and Ross giggling and planning to seduce the seducers, Baker and Mennig strutting as rivals or Weinstein’s hysterically timed second entrance wherein he puts us on the floor simply by asking if his supper is ready . The performance is studded with brilliant moments like these.
It is not a perfect show, but it was so good that allowances had to be made for the rocky road it faced aborning. No one publicized this fact, and I did not glean it from the performance. I caught wind of it speaking with an actor after the show. There were missed lighting cues and slightly longer set-changes than might have been. There were dropped lines, ad-libbing and doubling back to pick up important plot points. I only know this because I’d read the play. But these flaws melt away in the face of the joy and laughter sparked overall by this show.
In a room rated for 100, 26 of us spent a delightful two hours tossing from chuckle to snort with a fine cast performing a miraculously complete production of a zany, little-known work. It is impossible to hide the fact that there is tremendous skill, talent and dedication on Philadelphia area community stages with productions worth more than the price of the ticket yet going greatly unseen. The comments of the departing patrons, to a soul, marked the performance as tremendously funny, truly enjoyable and a hoot on steroids. The last one was mine.
Luckily, there’s still time to see this show. The wonder of its existence alone is worth the cost of admission. The fact that it’s a tight ensemble performance by a talented cast is but a most satisfying plot twist in the delicious mystery of how this show ever got up in the first place.
Adapted by Steve Martin from “DIE HOSE” by Carl Sternheim
Directed by David Ben Leavitt
September 5—14, 2014
58 Main Ave