Monday, September 17, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: Steve Martin's "The Underpants" at North Coast REP

“The Underpants” Not A Perfect Fit: 
North Coast Rep Season Opener Gets Giddy Without Much Gall  

By Donnie Matsuda 

It is no secret that sex sells, but in the case of The Underpants, a 1910 sociopolitical German farce re-adapted by comedian Steve Martin in 2002, it is possible to get too little of a good thing.  

That’s because the comedy written into this flimsy piece of farcical fluff is not the fast-paced, door-slamming, case of mistaken identity that we’ve come to expect of modern-day mockeries.  Instead, it is a light romp through a number of one-liners and low-blows, all with the underlying sexual undercurrent of double entendre.  Some of the jokes fly high, some fall a bit flat.  But the good thing about this brand of humor is that it keeps moving forward at a clipped pace so that there’s no time to truly analyze what is being said or whether or not it is truly funny (and this kind of comedy doesn’t take itself seriously at all, so no analysis is ever necessary).

Matthew Henerson and Holly Rone in "The Underpants."  Photo courtesy of North Coast REP.
In the play’s opening scene, we meet the two major players Theo and Louise Maske (played by a blustery Matthew Henerson and a glowing Holly Rone) and we learn about the one event that is shocking enough to remain the talk of the town for the rest of the play’s two acts over two hours.  Much to Theo’s chagrin, Louise accidentally lets her undergarments slip to her knees during the King’s royal parade (or so we hear second hand, the day after the event).  And that one split-second wardrobe malfunction has major consequences.  For one, the uptight Theo worries that he could lose his job as a civil servant, not to mention the rumors and the lack of respect that could potentially swirl about their household.  And then, there are the two renters who come knocking at the Maske’s door: a suave poet Frank Versati (a charming Jacob Bruce) and a prickly barber Benjamin Cohen (an over-the-top Omri Schein).  

As these two gents co-inhabit the room for rent in the Maske home, it becomes clear that their motivations are far more lustful than previously thought.  They both, in fact, saw the infamous “dropping of the drawers” at the royal parade and they have each hatched their own plan for a little sausage warming of their own.  And helping them out is the Maske’s upstairs neighbor (a crude and nosy Clarinda Ross) who attempts to add some sexual spice to her own life by living vicariously through the extramarital antics of Louise.  And to top it all off, there is the late addition of yet another gentleman whose intentions are not very clear at all, a bewildering and befuddled scientist named Klinglehoff (played with pure puzzlement by Jonathan McMurtry).   

(L-R): Matthew Henerson, Omri Schein, Holly Rone, and Jacob Bruce.  Photo courtesy of North Coast REP.
Thankfully, North Coast REP’s production boasts an extremely talented company of actors who nearly knock the pants off this somewhat underwhelming – though gleefully goofy - comedy.  Each member of this impressive six-member cast boasts rock-solid acting chops and each has prolific stage credits that could easily fill an entire program.  Because of both their extensive experience and their ace comedic abilities, these six actors play beautifully off each other and truly elevate the paper-thin plot and laughable antics of the mostly archaic piece.  More importantly, director Mark Pinter plays up the physical comedy only when the timing feels right and he doesn’t let his over-the-top characters veer too much into the realm of buffoon.  Instead, he goes for a much more organic (and hence, much more palatable) feel, which works well in the hands of his brilliantly comedic cast. 

Of course, it is most fitting in reviewing a play titled after an article of clothing that the show’s costumes are given special mention.  The beautifully buttoned-up looks of Alina Bokovikova’s period couture almost steal the show in and of themselves, with the gents sporting some mighty spiffy suits and the ladies corseted and laced up in some vibrant Victorian get-ups.  And the whimsical set by veteran designer Marty Burnett simply couldn’t be more adorable or delightful, with plenty of Alice in Wonderland-inspired topsy-turvy designs and off-kilter elements done up in bright golds, browns, and burgundies.

The Company of "The Underpants."  Photo courtesy of North Coast REP.
Given the play’s rather unconventional history (who would expect one of our modern-day comedians to adapt a play by one of the major exponents of German Expressionism?!), not to mention it’s rather unconventional title, it is perhaps no surprise that The Underpants falls a bit short of its unfocused aims and doesn’t quite come off as the hilarious, fun-filled, saucy and seductive sex farce that it should.  But all things considered, it does have a lot to offer in terms of innocent, tongue-in-cheek charm (thanks to the fresh zingers penned by Mr. Martin) while also attempting to weave in some meatier themes of the price of infidelity and the fleeting nature of fame.  

So, if you’re looking for an elegantly staged and well-acted evening of penis jokes and sexual double-entendres, then get your bloomin’ arse over to North Coast REP for some fickle fun.  Once you see it, you’re sure never to underestimate the power of an undergarment ever again!        
Things to know before you go: The Underpants plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through September 30, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm.  Tickets are $37-$54 with discounts available for seniors, students and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit

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