Revival of comedy ‘The Underpants’ brings Steve Martin’s comic voice back to the Old Globe
There’s a sly joke about a loathing of banjos in “The Underpants,” and it might come off as a little random and gratuitous unless you knew that the play’s writer is also a banjo big shot.
Who knows — Steve Martin might be famous for a few other things, too.
The Old Globe is returning to the theatrical canon of the comic-actor-musician-writer with a revival of “The Underpants,” Martin’s 2002 adaptation of a 1910 German farce. And the presence of the playwright is unmistakable, says the production’s director, Walter Bobbie.
“It’s a Steve Martin play,” as Bobbie puts it when the banjo angle is brought up. “He walks onstage with regularity. He enters the proceedings.”
Bobbie does not mean that literally, which might seem silly to specify except that when Martin’s world-premiere musical “Bright Star” launched at the Globe in 2014, there was some lingering confusion about whether he was actually in the show.
(He wasn’t, although the bluegrass-driven musical — which Martin created with the pop singer-songwriter Edie Brickell — did include rampant banjo-ing.)
Now, “The Underpants” becomes the fourth Martin play to be staged at the Globe in five years, after “Bright Star”; the world-premiere comedy “Meteor Shower” (which, like its predecessor, went on to Broadway); and a revival of 1993’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
While Martin’s take on the playwright Carl Sternheim’s 109-year-old farce has never been produced at the Balboa Park institution before, it does boast a significant Globe connection: The theater’s artistic director, Barry Edelstein, commissioned the adaptation when he was artistic chief of New York’s Classic Stage Co.
Bobbie has his own close connection to Martin. The director, a major Broadway presence whose credits include “Chicago” — the second-longest-running Broadway show ever — also directed “Bright Star,” and collaborated closely with Martin on that show.
But asked if he detects connections between the two works, Bobbie politely waves off the thought.
“Steve Martin is just such a unique, original American mind,” he says. “I think to find the thread in his work is a Pyrrhic journey. When you start with a man who had an arrow through his head onstage (in his ‘70s stand-up days), and you see him also doing ‘Godot’ under Mike Nichols’ direction at Lincoln Center, it’s hard to find the thread.
“Except that he is a fascinating man with varied interests and multiple skills and gifts. He’s a joy to be in the presence of. He’s not a wild-and-crazy guy — he’s a very serious, smart man. And he’s deeply funny.
“But when you’re with him, it’s all about the work. It’s not about him trying to entertain you.”
A scandal, in brief(s)
By now, though, you might be wondering about that title. “The Underpants,” as it happens, is not some metaphorical reference: The play is in fact the story of a burgeoning scandal over a woman whose private garments have accidentally fallen down in public.
The woman in question, Louise (played at the Globe by newcomer Regina De Vera), is not particularly bothered by the whole thing. But her insufferable husband, the uptight bureaucrat Theo (Eddie Kaye Thomas), fears what the incident might do to his reputation, particularly as the de-pantsing occurred during a parade in honor of the king (Kris Zarif).
Two witnesses to the incident, the poet Versati (Luis Vega) and the barber Cohen (Michael Bradley Cohen), also figure into the intrigue, as does the libidinous Gertrude (Joanna Glushak), who tries to talk her neighbor Louise into having a fling with Versati.
The scientist Klinglehoff (Jeff Blumenkrantz), meanwhile, has his own designs in mind.
At a Globe rehearsal on a recent morning in mid-July, there’s plenty of silliness in evidence. The room is littered with stuffed kitties, their presence accompanied by periodic, recorded meows and squeals as the actors move through a scene.
Thomas, as the officious Theo, is sniping at De Vera’s Louise: “Everyone notices you, and it’s your fault. It’s the woman’s fault, always!”
To which she replies with incredulity: “Men can’t be like that.”
In conversation outside the rehearsal room, Bobbie mentions how he and Martin have talked of the play’s engagement with the idea of the fleeting nature of fame; Louise becomes “the hashtag of the day, and then suddenly it’s over,” as the director puts it.
But there are plenty of other contemporary resonances, too.
“I find it so interesting that he wrote this play almost 20 years ago, and it is so completely timely right now,” says Glushak, the Broadway veteran and Globe returnee who was last in town a decade ago with La Jolla Playhouse’s “Xanadu.”
“Making fun of the patriarchy — it’s like he wrote it yesterday.”
Bobbie is quick to note that while the play’s setting remains nominally the same as in the Sternheim original, “we’re not in 1910 Germany — we’re in Steve Martin’s mind. Although we make a nod to the period, there’s nothing about the language that makes it feel like a period play. It’s Steve Martin language.”
But the director says it’s remarkable to see “this dutiful wife, who cooked and cleaned and made the house, emerge as an equal partner in her relationship over the course of (the play’s) 90 minutes. It’s kind of a dense piece of writing.
“Now, do we hope to get a lot of laughs along the way? Absolutely. But the only way you do that is if there’s some genuine grounding to it.”
For Glushak, “that seems like the genius of Steve Martin. He has put this amazingly political play under the cover of this absolutely tremendous humor. I would think as an audience member you’re laughing and you’re also thinking, ‘Oh, that really happened.’
“You’re laughing at what happens, and then afterward thinking: ‘Oh my god!’”
The role of Louise sounds as though it has been something of a revelation for De Vera, a newly minted Juilliard School grad who didn’t realize Steve Martin wrote plays until the Globe project came along.
“I read the script, and I was really drawn to the journey of this woman, who in the beginning feels she can’t take up that much space in the room, and is happy with the way things are,” De Vera says.
“And then things happen to her, and she grows and realizes there could be something more. She comes into herself.
“That’s a really great journey that I was drawn to.”
De Vera also confesses: “I didn’t know I was funny until I went to Juilliard!” where she was cast to play an Asian man in a Chuck Mee play, requiring her to engage in a five-page macho rant. “They gave that part to me, and I embraced it.”
Now she gets to embrace Martin’s matchless brand of humor, in a play that has Bobbie and Co. hitching up their britches and doing their best to put a fresh stamp on the story.
“We’re not rewriting it,” the director says. “But hopefully we’re reinventing it.”
Steve and the Globe
The Old Globe Theatre has staged a string of plays by Steve Martin since 2014, including two world premieres that landed on Broadway. A look at the lineup:
“Bright Star,” 2014: This world-premiere musical grew out of Martin’s collaboration with the singer-songwriter Edie Brickell on the Grammy Award-winning 2013 album “Love Has Come For You.” The two wrote new music to accompany the show’s time-hopping story of a magazine editor with a big mystery at the center of her life. “Bright Star” opened on Broadway in 2016 and earned five Tony Award nominations.
“Meteor Shower,” 2016: Martin’s cosmic world-premiere comedy centers on some very weird happenings visited upon two California couples at a dinner party. The piece went on to Broadway for a two-month run in 2017, with a cast that included Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” 2017: The Globe revived Martin’s very first play, which premiered in 1993 and has been staged around the country. Its story focuses on a fictional meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at a Paris pub.
When: Previews begin Saturday. Opens Aug. 1. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 1.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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