Snap on a good piece of lingerie, and suddenly the world changes. Sunlight seems brighter, your clothes fit better and nobody makes eye contact with you. However, there’s scant evidence of the power of scanties in Olney Theatre Center’s production of Steve Martin‘s farce about empty celebrity, “The Underpants,” directed by John Going.
This production is to comedy what granny panties are to sexual allure. The frustrating thing about this show is that you can see the places where Mr. Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim‘s turn-of-the-20th-century German sex romp would be funny and where physical comedy would raise the level of illicit high jinks even further. Except for the nuanced slapstick of Bruce Nelson, playing a hypochondriac to the sickly hilt, the cast seems more repressed than irrepressible.
In his update of “The Underpants,” Mr. Martin has downplayed the sociopolitical aspects of Mr. Sternheim’s play - although references to anti-Semitism and chauvinism still can be detected - in favor of emphasizing the theme of bourgeois folk suddenly becoming famous for nothing. In an era of wardrobe malfunctions and Britney Spears’ lack of undergarments making front-page news, this could not be more contemporary.
The instant celebrity in question is sequestered hausfrau Louise Maske (Allison McLemore), a pretty young bride saddled with a Cro-Magnon husband, Theo (James Beneduce), a braying government clerk. When her panties accidentally fall down during a parade honoring the king, Louise becomes more desired than a Victoria’s Secret model, and her drooling suitors include a foppish, proudly unpublished poet named Versati (Jeffries Thaiss, expertly embodying a Byronic slimeball), and Benjamin Cohen (Mr. Nelson), a possessive barber.
Every stereotype is trotted out: the sexually wanting spinster (Joan Rosenfels), the avaricious Jew, the innocent lovely ripe for the picking, the overbearing and slightly stupid husband. Such characters are the stock-in-trade of farce, and what makes them come alive are actors willing to explore the garish extremes and also reveal the unexpected. In this production, mostly everyone seems content just to play the cliche.
To sit through a mostly unfunny comedy is a special circle of hell Dante never considered. Oddly enough, one of the wittiest flourishes in “The Underpants” occurs in the lobby, where artist Joyce Zipperer’s metal sculpture of 10 styles of women’s underwear hangs on a clothesline and deftly captures the naughty spirit that is woefully lacking onstage.
A few times Mr. Martin’s wryly askew comedic asides on the effects of fame and notoriety peek through, but on the whole, “The Underpants” droops and is unmentionable for all the wrong reasons.
WHAT: “The Underpants,” adapted by Steve Martin from a play by Carl Sternheim
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 19.
TICKETS: $25 to $48
WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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