What a difference two seconds can make. That’s how short a time Louise Maske insists that her undies dropped down to her ankles “in front of the neighbors, in front of strangers, and at the King’s parade” in The Underpants, adapted from German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1910 original by none other than Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin, whose unique take on love and life makes Long Beach Playhouse’s production of The Underpants a delightful August surprise.

We first meet lovely young Louise (Maranda Barskey) and her considerably older and less lovely husband Theo (Mitchell Nunn) mid-quarrel, Theo in a tizzy about the likely repercussions of his wife’s unfortunate mishap. He’ll be fired; they’ll be out in the street with nothing left but poverty, shame, and hunger. On the other hand, what can a man expect when married to a woman whose breasts and legs are as eye-catching as Louise’s? “My job and your appearance do not go together,” Theo now realizes—too late.

Middle-aged upstairs neighbor Gertrude (Jane Nunn) has a different take on the matter, especially once she learns that a handsome young poet named Frank Versati (Brian Rohan) has inquired about renting the Maskes’ spare room after a glimpse of Louise’s undergarments. With Theo shirking his husbandly duties, Louise deserves something in her at night besides sauerkraut, insists Gertrude, who now plans on having an affair herself, albeit vicariously through Louise.

Meanwhile Theo has brought home a would-be lodger of his own, a certain Benjamin Cohen (Jeff Asch), who just happened to have been “lying on the ground only two steps away” from Louise when her undies fell down. “To me it was paradise, if I saw what I think I saw,” he reveals breathlessly to an outwardly dismayed but secretly titillated Louise.

With both men insistent on lodging at the Haskes’, a compromise is soon decided upon, the duo agreeing to share the spare room, the better to be near the object of their obsession.

Whatever comic agenda playwright Sternheim may have had in his 1910 Die Hose, adapter Martin sees things with decidedly contemporary eyes in The Underpants, despite retaining its original time frame and setting. Louise and Theo are hardly a match made in romantic heaven, the couple having consummated their marriage on their honeymoon night and never once in the year since, Theo considering a baby out of the question until his salary and savings are enough to support a child. Louise’s accident changes all that, giving the young woman a new sense of self and a power she had no idea she had within her.

Martin accomplishes all this with the same unique comedic flair that has been delighting film audiences for decades in self-penned hits like The Jerk, L.A. Story, Bowfinger, and Roxanne, itself an adaptation of a foreign language stage original.

Take this bit of dialog:
Gertrude: I want that gentleman to be your lover.
Louise: Oh, my God, the wieners!
Gertrude: Yes, every last one of them!
Louise: (opening the stove) Our dinner! It’s burned.

Or this exchange:
Theo: I want to sleep with you. It won’t take a moment.
Gertrude: I’m torn. On one hand yes. And on the other, why not.

Or Versati’s remark to Louise: Your breasts swell already. I can see the muslin move.


None of this drollery would be quite as delightful without a dandy bunch of actors embodying Sternheim & Martin’s characters, and the Long Beach Playhouse has found just such a group, despite some uncertainty with lines at the performance reviewed.

As Louise, Barskey proves herself an expert comedienne with a romcom-ready prettiness and charm. A hilarious Rohan has great fun with a deliciously over-the-top Versati.  Real life married couple Nunn and Nunn get laughs aplenty as stuffy, self-important Theo and nosy-but-helpful neighbor Gertrude, as do John Gilbert and Steven Biggs as two other would-be lodgers. Best of all is the ever so quirky Asch giving a nebbishy gem of a performance as Benjamin “I’m Not Jewish” Cohen.

Credit director Craig Fleming with setting just the right delicate, fanciful tone from the get-go, and for keeping things real, however outrageous the circumstances.  

If ever there was a show worth seeing for its design alone, The Underpants is that show. Set designer Naomi Kasahava, lighting designer Matthew Mikulka, and costume designer Donna Fritsche have created an entirely black-and-white world for these characters to inhabit, as if we were seeing them in the sepia-toned photos of the era. Though this monochromatic design does tend to get a bit lulling mid-play, its very uniqueness makes it a must-see. Director Fleming underscores the action with a charming selection of Viennese waltzes. Kudos go too to prop master Sean Gray and wig master Mark Travis Hoyer. Katherine “Katie” Kenney is stage manager.

The Underpants doesn’t set out to change the world, though the world of Louise and Theo Maske does end up changed for the better thanks to two decisive seconds in their lives. The moral of the story: Sometimes a loose waist band can work wonders, especially when you’ve got Steve Martin holding the drawstring.

Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 18, 2011
Photos: Jonathon Lewis

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