With a title like The Underpants, who even needs a play? Producing German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1911 comedy has guaranteed Classic Stage Company both an audience and word of mouth. People all over the city will now ask each other “Have you seen The Underpants?”—just for a cheap thrill. The show is hilarious and bawdy before you even get there. Fortunately, director Barry Edelstein sustains that bawdiness and hilarity, adding a dash of star power in the form of Steve Martin’s cheery adaptation.
Sternheim’s first big success, and the first in his cycle of plays about the German bourgeoisie, The Underpants‘ main plot point is as simple and titillating as its title. In a scene that takes place before the action of the play, the bloomers of Louise Maske, the wife of a civil servant, come loose in public, falling to her ankles. The play opens as Theo, her husband, berates Louise for this contretemps. At the same time, the couple has a room to rent. Later that day two different men arrive, determined to rent it. In turn they confess they’ve been drawn by Louise’s trou-dropping prowess. Versati, a poet (called Scarron in the original), embodies the Nietzschean New Man. Seized with idealism and will to power, he seduces Louise, whose upstairs neighbor Gertrude encourages her to have an affair with him. The other suitor, a barber named Cohen (Mandelstam in Sternheim’s version), denies his Jewish roots so Theo will rent to him. Without Versati’s youth or looks, he vows to prevent Louise’s adulterous liaison out of jealousy.
The original production of The Underpants was banned by the German government, probably not just for its suggestive setup, but for its biting satire. Martin updates Sternheim rather politely. He clips a few harsh incidents, including Gertrude’s decision to sleep with Theo, and adds a lot of glib dialogue and a bizarre denouement that preserves Louise’s minor celebrity status. The new ending even refutes Sternheim’s point about the spiritual emptiness of bourgeois lifestyles. Though Sternheim came from a wealthy family and prospered from his theatrical successes, his father was Jewish, which lent him an outsider’s view of the inside. His comedies are often seen as simply lampooning the landed gentry, but they are not so easy to pin down.
Still, from this side of the 20th century it’s hard not to see the ominous aspect of Theo’s conformity, anxiety, and anti-Semitism. In this production, he’s the site of an ideological clash. Edelstein has given Byron Jennings a Hitler-ish hairdo and mustache, shedding some light on what Theo’s class had in store. In contrast, Jennings’s performance and Martin’s adaptation have softened Theo’s cruel edge a bit. In the original’s first scene, we see the clerk bashing his wife’s head against a table for her faux pas. At CSC, they merely have an argument. And when Jennings waves his open hands at his ears, lunges across the stage, and delivers lines sarcastically, one thinks more of Steve Martin (lovable) than Hitler (not so lovable). Jennings, à la Martin, doesn’t yet sound like someone who believes what he’s saying, which sacrifices the character’s obtuse innocence. That quality is the heart of Sternheim’s critique. If it’s crucial to Theo’s function in the play, it’s also what would make the type of men Sternheim satirizes capable of (among other things) ignoring the most horrific event of the next hundred years. Kristine Nielsen, as Gertrude, brilliantly pulls off what Jennings needs to: a frenetic, wacky performance that rings completely true.
While this production is highly entertaining, Edelstein has basically commissioned a cat to rewrite an anti-feline play. Martin is a fat cat, too, who leaves downtown theaters in stretch limos, so he evidently can’t help identifying with Theo. “The bourgeoisie is us,” he recently told The New York Times. It may not concern him that Theo is a walking cautionary tale, as relevant to Germany in 1911 as he should be to America after 9-11. We’ve never needed a good playwright to take the piss out of middle-class blockheads and flag-kissing nationalists as much as we do now. But indifference is the bonbon of privilege, isn’t it? Martin’s never been political; it’s not time for him to start. And given the somber tone of CSC’s last season (not to mention the mood of the city), Martin’s light touch is perhaps in order, even for a comedy that isn’t as pretty as it looks.