Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 28, 2004
Austin Playhouse, through June 20
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min
At a public event of national significance, a young woman's undergarment falls away, sparking a sensation among the populace.
You thought "wardrobe malfunctions" got their start with Janet Jackson? Hardly. German playwright Carl Sternheim was using them to court controversy almost a century before the pop diva popped free of her black bustier before a Super Bowl-transfixed America. In his pre-World War I satire, it's a mild-mannered hausfrau who causes the commotion when a wayward knot comes undone as she's viewing a parade for the Kaiser. Down to the street drop her unmentionables, and though she scoops them up before she believes anyone has time to see, the next day finds her peccadillo the talk of Dusseldorf and two men on her doorstep, inflamed by what they glimpsed during her lingerie lapse and desperate to rent the room that she and her husband are letting. All the attention proves seductive to Louise, who finds being a not-so-obscure object of desire infinitely preferable to slaving away in domestic servitude for her tinpot tyrant of a spouse.
In Sternheim's day, this was satire with real bite, its caustic ridicule of German middle-class moral propriety and respect for authority serious enough to get the play banned. But the years and miles that the play has traveled since have worn down its pointed teeth. Save for some still-stinging references to anti-Semitism, what's left is pretty standard sex farce which is basically what Steve Martin delivers in his adaptation of Sternheim's script and what Austin Playhouse serves up in its genial local premiere.
To get into The Underpants, as it were, director Don Toner has deployed another ensemble of able, reliable actors, who take to the comedy with relish and enjoy themselves mightily. As Louise, Lara Toner stands at the heart of all the hubbub, and while her wholesome, girl-next-door features don't suggest the carnal creature said to lurk beneath Louise's modest attire, they add to our sense of Louise as an innocent, utterly unprepared for her new role as sex symbol. Toner plays her as a dreamy naïf, her breathy lilt pitched so high that her lines seem to come from above her head.
Keeping her in her place is John Hoff's Theo, who seems less a bourgeois stuffed shirt running his home like he runs his office and more a blue-collar stiff who lucked into a government desk jockey job and will do anything to keep it. With his low, husky voice, blunt delivery, and hulking swagger, he's a real bruiser Stanley Kowalski as Teutonic paper-pusher, Ralph Kramden as Wilhelmian civil servant. The choice dilutes some of the play's jabs at the straight-laced formality of the bourgeoisie, but it heightens the contrast between Louise's husband and her suitors: the flamboyant poet Versati, played by David Stokey with lace cuffs, a pencil-thin moustache, and extravagant gestures that at times have a Martin-esque flair; and the meek barber Cohen, who, embodied by Hans Venable, with soft voice and rounded shoulders, swathed in gray, appears more mouse than man. When the three face off in "philosophical discussions" (a highlight of the production), they're as different as ego, superego, and id or maybe Moe, Larry, and Curly. Rounding out the cast are Bernadette Nason as the upstairs neighbor, salaciously goading Louise into an affair, and Tom Parker as an elderly, stiff-necked scientist who wants to rent their room but can't abide anything suggestive of sex. Their performances are crisp, pleasing and, as with their colleagues onstage, exude a sense of the fun they're having.
Occasionally, Martin offers some topical commentary after Louise's 15 minutes of fame, he considers how addictive celebrity can be, even when the cause is scandal but his heart doesn't seem to be in it. His focus is on double entendres, general ribaldry, and spoofing sexual mores. Granted, there are still enough hang-ups over sex in this country to warrant a satirical basting witness all that righteous indignation over one exposed nipple but it's hard to picture the bawdiness here generating the kind of outrage that greeted Ms. Jackson. It's too playful and the Playhouse's approach too good-natured for that. It's not a hard jab in the eye but a friendly poke in the ribs about matters a little farther south.