Playing with Underpants

Steve Martin wrote about undergarments.
Steve Martin wrote about undergarments. // Charles Erickson

It was a devious plan: Get rid of Benjamin Cohen (Steve Routman). Permanently. Louise Maske (Jenny Leona) and Frank Versait (Burke Moses), two lovers frantic for some sexual pleasure, despise Cohen, an older gentleman who shamelessly desires Louise’s undivided love. Together, they try to get the older man so drunk that he never comes back to the house. But when that plan fails, Louise comes up with something even more sinister. She tricks Cohen into believing that he is so sick that his mouth is “scarlet” red, his tongue made of “rabbit fur” and his head a burning “inferno.” Then she tells him that his affliction can only be cured with a dangerous potion. Desperate and foolishly in love, Cohen does exactly what Louise hopes — he drinks the forbidden potion.

But, before it reached this level of chaos, “The Underpants,” a satirical comedy written by Steve Martin and performed at the Long Wharf theater, started out simply enough. Government clerk Theo Maske (Jeff McCarthy) and his wife, Louise, go to a parade in hopes of watching the Kaiser. However, the royal celebrations quickly escalate into a disaster when Louise’s undergarments are exposed to the entire crowd. Terrified of the scandalous situation, Maske becomes terrified of losing his job.

Ironically, the incident results in a boom for Maske’s side business, renting out rooms in his house. Three men — Versait, Cohen, and Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff) — all arrive to stay with the Maskes. And throughout the play, Versait and Cohen desperately try to court Louise, who is advised by Gertrude Deuter (Didi Conn), her opportunist neighbor, to play along with the men and pursue love’s guilty pleasures.

Louise, as played by Leona, is a lovable character — oozing with the distinctive personality of an irresponsible bride. Leona’s graceful movements across the stage and her cheerful voice highlight her lively performance throughout the play. Her interactions with other characters, particularly with Cohen, drive much of the plot forward. Her carefree nature also emphasizes the play’s focus on engaging and likable characters.

Although humorous and full of witty dialogue, the story falls a little short. For instance, Maske and Gertrude almost have an affair midway though the play, but their plans suddenly stall when Gertrude decides to pull out. Not only does this scene add very little to the story, it becomes a distant memory as the play progresses. When Maske and Gertrude meet again later in the play, they barely interact, and there are no hints that their love story even took place.

The audience was lively throughout — laughing at every joke and murmuring gleefully after many of the humorous lines. The references to gender roles and current political issues were particularly effective at generating buzz. For example, when Versait and Louise played with a long sword — creating an allusion to private sexual parts — audience members cried with laughter. It was in those moments when the audience engaged — with thunderous laughter or silent murmurings — that the play truly shined.

“The Underpants” concludes with a surprise reveal and a twist. However, both fall short of their premise. When the last lines were played out and cast finally walked off, I was left wanting more. The show ends mid-plot, without revealing exactly what it’s meant to be a satire of. It was as if the story was not finished or the characters still had something to prove. The show left a lot of loose ends, and plot points, unresolved. What really happened to those underpants, anyway? And the nice silky cloth?

As I rode the taxi back to Yale, I realized it was not the story that left me wanting more — it was the characters. Every one of the six performers played their parts so beautifully, so creatively, so imaginatively that I could not help but long for more. Even though the satire’s message was shallow, the cast filled the comedy with memorable and humorous moments. And their sense of fun and enthusiasm overshadowed any weaknesses of the plot.

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