Steve Martin is the king of witty farce. His theatrical recipe is a winning combination; he riddles plays and screenplays with laughs for those interested in pure silliness while decorating them with social commentary—for those willing to, well ... lift up the skirt and find it.
The Underpants by Carl Sternheim and adapted by Martin is Boise Contemporary Theater's second Martin adaptation; the first was Picasso at the Lapin Agile—BCT's first production at Fulton Street Theater. The Underpants is more of a crowd-pleaser and less heady and satiric than Picasso; it relies heavily on straightforward comedic mechanisms like repetition, hyperbole and sexual tension. Sure, it sheds a bit of light on philosophical matters—like male fetishism, female desire, fame, infidelity and anti-Semitism—but the shtick is what sticks in the end.
Richard Klautsch plays Theo, an uptight, boorish government clerk in early twentieth century Germany. His wife, Louise (Sara Bruner) is a disenchanted housewife with a cheeky streak, sentenced to wait for sex until her husband feels they have enough savings to begin a family. One day, while observing a parade, Louise's britches fall to the ground just as the King passes. The event does not go unnoticed and Theo is mortified and obsessed—both with his own humiliation and the impudicity of his wife.
After the incident, Louise's life takes an exciting turn when two men show up at the doorstep wanting to rent the spare room in their house. At first, neither Louise nor Theo realize this sudden surge of interest in the room springs from two witnesses to the bloomer blunder—both of whom have arrived on the scene in hopes of a repeat offense. Theo is thrilled by the possible financial gain two boarders would bring and devises a plan to split the room in half—an amenable plan to the starry-eyed young men.
Louise soon realizes the romantic intentions of each boarder and falls for Versati, the suave, sensitive, silver-tongued poet. Cohen, an anxious and sickly Jew (who is always trying to hide this fact, "That's Cohen with a K," he tells Theo) becomes the would-be lovers' greatest obstacle.
Meanwhile, downstairs, neighbor-friend Gertrude (isn't that always the name of the spinster character?) listens to the drama unfold above her and prepares to meddle. Tracy Sunderland soars in the role of Gertrude, barging in and out unannounced, goading Louise to have her way with Versati and showing just a bit too much enthusiasm for her own schemes. At one point, Gertrude enacts a hysterical finger "puppet" rendition of what could transpire between secret lovers—a brilliant bit carried out with unbelievable precision, detail and sound effects.
The tidy set by the n'er disappointing Michael Baltzell is very German—heavy wood contrasted by large, richly painted flowers and birds on both the walls and floor. Added to this are a few marvels that always seem to find their way onto a BCT set—this time we see smoke from burning food in the wood stove and a cuckoo clock that performs different kooky cuckoo routines.
Just as Martin left his mark on this adaptation (Gertrude comes from seeing another Sternheim play and tells Louise she should wait until it's adapted to see it), director Matt Clark's hand is also very clear. The staging is always interesting, the gags and bits nonstop. There are conversations that occur under Louise's skirt, scenes that culminate in baguette baseball, more phalluses than you'd find at the Rubber Rainbow, and so many well-choreographed tumbles on Bruner's part, it's a good thing she dons a long skirt to hide the bruises she must have.
There are no weak performances among the principals; Klautsch manages to make fuddy-duddy fascinating and flatulence funny—again and again. Bruner is pert and bold and as funny as she's ever been. Sunderland too has set the bar high; her comedic timing is impeccable and Gertrude's own salty side is both surprising and believable. Dwayne Blackaller oozes overzealous-egomaniacal-yet-loveable poet Versati, having finessed many grandiose gestures and entrances. The newcomer to the BCT stage, Simon Hamlin as Cohen, teeters just on the verge of too whiny and pathetic, then reels in enough chutzpah to save himself.
The play is a moral marvel in that so much of the anticipated naughtiness never actually transpires. In the end, all the pieces are put back together without too many cracks and audiences can leave without much weighing on their minds.
No doubt The Underpants will sell out; it's great, light, springtime theatrical fare.
The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin
Presented by Boise Contemporary Theater at Fulton Street Theater
Thursday-Sat. at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m on Sundays through May 2
$20 on Thursday/Sunday; $25 on Friday/Saturday
Tickets at ticketweb or 331-9224.