Underneath It All With "The Underpants"

Oct 28, 2013

Jenny Leona and Jeff McCarthy in The Underpants
Credit T. Charles Erickson

We’ve become full-time fame seekers. Admit it: no matter what age, walk of life, or social standing, just being friended or liked by no one in particular makes our day. We create online personas, instantly publish, and look to find inspiration from the reality television that surrounds us. There, we can root for real cops, middle-class castaways, and cut-throat cooks. 

Even those dolled-up wives with deep pocketbooks and dirty laundry from New Jersey compete for our attention, and play on our most ridiculous desires. They all service our hunger to be noticed.

"The Underpants" by Steve Martin, playing through November 10 at the Long Wharf Theatre, provides a look into the psyche of today’s reality-friendly, fame-needy society. Joyfully, however, Martin's play provides a laugh out loud perspective and a smart, satirical look through a window (literally) into who we are and how far we are willing to go with that fleeting moment in the limelight—if we get it. It’s also about how we become hooked as observers, feeding off the chosen few.

Martin’s version of the 1911 Carl Sternheim play turns us into voyeurs who peek inside the apartment of a newly-married German couple, Louise and Theo Maske. We all get to be the next-door neighbor and eavesdrop on who they are, who they aren’t, and what they desire underneath it all.

When Louise’s panties fall loose and drop to the ground during a parade in view of the entire city, her normal, nondescript life suddenly goes public. She finds herself on everyone’s mind in a city controlled by men. Her instant fame also motivates and exposes the skillful lies and deeper needs of everyone around her, and that includes Louise’s own hidden desires.

As we watch a series of secret encounters and seductive game-playing unfold, it’s the community that really puts the reality show into motion, sending Louise on an exciting new reality journey. What starts out as a young woman with little sense of self -- an identity stripped by her domineering, buffoonish husband -- quickly turns into a new destination that unfolds in full view.

Along the way, through each new man who drops into Louise’s life, Martin offers precious yet playful comments on our universal desires. At one point, the tenacious, under-achieving Herr Cohen truthfully gasps, “Jealousy gives me the right to be a fool.” Frank Versati, the primal poet who seeks to make Louise his muse, believes that he alone can transform the desire between them into the perfect words, and by doing so, raising himself into a creative champion and the next “Idol.”

Even Louise’s female friend Gertrude, that snoopy upstairs neighbor, fans the flames of her blushing desires. Through secret sisterhood (The Housewives), Gertrude encourages Louise to use her ability to become a sex object whenever needed, in order to both empower herself and use it as a weapon to get what she needs. By doing so, she guides Louise toward a new sense of self.

While all this sounds like pretty heady stuff—well, Martin’s play is very sophisticated. Yet it manages to play in a wonderfully low brow style at the same time. It works because he hides most of that psychology beneath the action, and reveals his commentary on the human race with one-liners using wit, speed, and whimsy.

To balance the word-play, director Gordon Edelstein’s timing and physical choreography moves the elements of vaudeville-type shtick to sexual sight gags without a blink; and he’s gathered a wonderful cast of shapes and sizes and sounds. This sharp and skillful cast of six, especially the delightful Burke Moses as Frank Versati, bring great commitment and zeal to the larger than life premise. Let’s be real, this is a story about a pair of underpants and what they can do!

The ensemble’s interplay not only fills the entire Long Wharf Theatre space, the production flies ten times faster than even the best reality television, if there is such a thing. I’d gladly rather dial in to this vaudevillian-style sitcom set in turn-of-the-century Germany any night of the week.

Ultimately, Martin’s characters prove that “everything around us is lies,” and perhaps reality is not what it appears. But isn’t that what intrigues us about reality television? About the startling profiles on Facebook? Or what’s behind the photo that’s trending?

"The Underpants" is that secret peek through the window, and behind the mask, that shows us another hidden layer. Maybe in our fleeting 15 minutes of fame, while everyone laughs, we really can discover something about who we are.