Comedian Steve Martin’s 2002 adaptation of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1910 comedy, “The Underpants,” makes it more sex farce than social commentary. But there are some sure-fire punch lines and knee-slapping situations that can easily entertain. Theatre in the Park’s production boasts well-cast actors and fine technical aspects, but, at least on opening night, it needed more fizz to speed the shenanigans along.
Stuffy government worker Theo is mortified to learn his young wife Louise accidentally let her bloomers fall around her ankles while stretching to see the king in a crowd. Theo fears he’ll lose his job and reputation if the incident is reported.
Shortly after, Frank, a would-be poet, and Benjamin, a worn-down little man, come asking to rent a room at Theo and Louise’s apartment. It’s soon revealed they both saw the bloomers drop, spurring them on to woo Louise. She’s reluctant at first, but egged on by her busybody upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, and feeling neglected by Theo, she allows Frank to talk her into considering a secret tryst, angering Benjamin.
Martin shortens the original four-act play into what is designated as a 90-minute one-act. He adds clever one-liners but also some surprisingly crude sexual double-entendres. There’s some pointed commentary on marital dynamics and propriety, along with references to German-Jewish relations at the time.
Director Ira David Wood IV elicits good characterizations from his actors, who willingly engage in a lot of physical comedy. David Bankert’s Theo is appropriately blustery and thickheaded, while Diana Cameron McQueen’s Louise nicely alternates between innocence and newly awakened desire. Jonathan King poses effetely and gushes lyrically as Frank. Mark Phialas’ cameo, as puritanical Klinglehoff, gets mileage out of the character’s shock as he’s pulled into the mayhem.
The best work comes from two experienced pros. Sandi Sullivan’s Gertrude brightens the stage in her every scene, garnering consistent laughs through expert timing and knowing characterization. Larry Evans also gives Benjamin consistency and control, never overdoing the many pratfalls and bodily contortions asked of him.
Thomas Mauney’s stage-filling set is appealingly stuffed with amusing detail, enhanced with Shawn Stewart-Larson’s period costumes.
Farce needs to whiz along, but at Friday’s opening, pauses between lines, heavy-handed emphasis on already obvious sexual references, and actors’ tendencies to mug as the night went on, allowed for only intermittent laughter. The decision to play the piece in two acts further deflated the requisite airiness.
The humor is recognizably Martin’s, so fans can revel in its familiarity. With luck, the production will have tightened by now to make that humor hit all its marks.
If you go
What: “The Underpants” by Steve Martin
Where: Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Road, Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11-13, 19-20; 3 p.m. Feb. 14, 21
Tickets: $24 (seniors, students, military $18)
Info: 919-831-6058 or theatreinthepark.com