The Underpants, on stage now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, should not be confused with the best-selling children’s “Captain Underpants” books which were quite a bit funnier. And it certainly doesn’t rank up there in salaciousness with the Victoria’s Secret Super Bowl commercials.
Set in D’uuml;sseldorf, Germany, in 1910, the satirical comedy follows the trials and tribulations of Louise, a comely hausfrau who loses her drawers while viewing the king’s parade. The two-second event is the catalyst for a fast-moving look at lust, fickle hearts, dissatisfied women and low-level bureaucrats.
The play was adapted by Steve Martin (yes, the American comedian) from German playwright Carl Sternheim’s “Die Hose,” first presented in 1911.
Sternheim was considered quite a subversive and after just a few of his plays were produced, they were banned in Germany. Maybe you need a better understanding of history or the period, but it doesn’t seem that Martin’s version would get the government censors’ knickers in a twist, while the ribald content may have been increased for American audiences.
The only member of the cast who seems to realize that the 99-seat theater does not require the same scope of gesture and volume as a larger venue is Amanda Jaros, who plays the lead role of Louise. She adeptly conveys a dreamy young newlywed thrust into a confusing situation in which everyone wants something from her – from her husband of one year, Theo (James Jaeger), her neighbor Gertrude (Tracy Casadio), to the boarders Frank (Colin Kramer) and Benjamin (Eric Rummel).
Jaeger makes a very loud and angry Theo, which didn’t seem to suit the character, a government clerk who is so fixated on appearances and money that he doesn’t notice the tug-of-war going on between the boarders who, having both witnessed Louise’s elastic lapse, set their sights on winning her heart (and for at least one of them, the opportunity to see her sans underpants again).
Theo’s eye-rolling and exaggerated gestures which he uses to emphasize some of Martin’s bawdier double-entendres get tiresome, as does the shrill, strangely English accent of nosy upstairs neighbor Gertrude who lives vicariously through Louise.
Speaking of accents, the supposedly suave and debonair Italian playboy, Frank, is given such a caricature of an accent that it is sometimes hard to understand what he is saying.
The comedic timing seems to be off. The actors often do not give the audience time to absorb and react to the subtler turns of phrase. In one scene, Theo continued to read his lines when some audience members were still laughing at the last gag.
The single set is nicely done, evoking a tidy, common apartment dwelling of the period. The costuming, with the men in spats and top hats and the ladies in high-necked blouses and long skirts, is equally evocative of the era. Theater seating is very comfortable and every audience member has great sightlines. The intermission snacks are what you might expect of a neighborhood theater – basically candy bars and coffee served in paper cups.
If you live near Sierra Madre, a cozy burg nestled in the San Gabriel foothills just above the Santa Anita Racetrack, then by all means give it a whirl, but with gas prices being what they are, I wouldn’t recommend taking a trip just to see this show.