‘The Underpants’: a stage-full of comic magicians

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UnderpantsThe Steve Martin play “The Underpants” is slight — to say the least — but it is being given a first-class production at Long Wharf Theatre.

You could take a comedy master class from the company of veteran actors that includes Jeff McCarthy, Burke Moses, George Bartenieff, Steve Routman and Didi Conn.

Martin used an antique German comedy “Die Hose” as inspiration for his 2002 script which is about the sexual hysteria that follows an incident in the streets of Dusseldorf a century ago.

Young housewife Louise Maske (Jenny Leona) stands on tiptoe to get a better view of the king in a parade passing by. Her loosely tied underpants fall to her feet and a scandal ensues.

Louise’s prig of a husband, Theo (McCarthy), fears his government job will be threatened.

But, a room-for-rent sign placed in the couple’s window draws two men who eventually reveal that they were turned on by the parade mishap — the exuberant poet Frank Versati (Moses) and a shy, hypochondriac barber, Benjamin Cohen (Routman).Underpants2

“The Underpants” is a farce about a woman who is at first horrified by her 15 minutes of fame, but then is turned on by the attention it brings her (the scandal also shows Louise that she is stuck with a dull and conformist husband).

Martin wrote his play just as the reality TV explosion was starting so there is still considerable humor in the parallels between Louise and such famous-for-being-famous contemporary figures as Kim Kardashian and Snookie.

The set-up is fine but many of the gags are stale and a running joke about German anti-Semitism keeps falling flat in the context of a frothy sex farce (the barber disguises his Jewishness by repeatedly insisting that he is a Cohen with a “K”). I suppose there are ways you could build black comedy around the ethnicity that would lead to mass extermination 40 years later but I shuddered every time this joke was repeated.

What makes “The Underpants” well worth seeing is the inspired clowning of director Gordon Edelstein’s ensemble. Each of the actors gets to show off crack comic timing and physical shtick that is consistently hilarious (one high point is the way Didi Conn plays her spinster character’s war with her higher self when an unexpected sexual opportunity comes her way).

Jeff McCarthy had a pivotal role in Edelstein’s great production of “The Front Page” several seasons ago — and is still fondly remembered for his performance as Lockstock in the original Broadway production of “Urinetown.” As the boob at the center of “The Underpants” he makes pomposity very funny indeed and when he shows his true sexual self late in the play McCarthy displays prodigious physical comedy skills.

My experience at this play was slightly puzzling — the material seemed more foolish than Martin intended, but I had a very good time watching Edelstein and company hoist it over the top.

(“The Underpants” is running through Nov. 10 at Long Wharf Theatre. Co-producer Hartford Stage will present the play Jan. 9 to Feb. 9.)

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Joe Meyers

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