Comic playwright, director Walter Bobbie put a modern, absurdist twist on 1910 German farce
In theatrical shorthand, a set filled with doors means it’s going to be a fast-paced farce. But in the opening seconds of “The Underpants,” which opened Thursday in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the doors immediately disappear into slots on the floor.
That’s because this “Underpants” isn’t really Carl Sternheim’s original 1910 German political farce. It’s an absurdist English-language adaptation of the play filtered through the comic mind of Steve Martin, whose other theatrical works “Meteor Shower,” “Bright Star” and “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” have all been presented at the Globe since 2014.
The 2002 play was commissioned by Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein, who says in his program notes that Martin’s “Underpants” honors the original while embracing the now. The bones of Sternheim’s original script are there, but Martin’s script takes off in wild flights of modern fancy with kooky twists and turns.
Originally a political farce on middle class mores, politics, racism and sexism, it’s now a sex comedy about a repressed Düsseldorf housewife who unwittingly becomes famous, Kim Kardashian-style, when her drawers are accidentally dropped in the public eye. Relishing the sudden attention, she uses her fame to achieve a sliver of liberation.
Director Walter Bobbie, who helmed the Globe’s “Bright Star” world premiere five years ago, jam-packs the 90-minute play with visual humor, sound and special effects, music and physical comedy. This keeps the laughs flowing but sometimes gets in the way of the storytelling.
For example, as the play opens in the apartment of Theo and Louise Maske, five robot cats laze about the polka dot-floored apartment designed by John Lee Beatty. Within minutes, the yowling felines are sent flying like the cosmic cannonball in “Meteor Shower” and the baby in “Bright Star.” It’s an amusing bit, but distracting and never really explained.
Regina De Vera is luminous and endearing as Louise, the housewife who feels as trapped in her sexless marriage as her character’s robot canary in a gilded cage. While attending the king’s parade one day, Louise’s underpants briefly slipped to the ground beneath her skirt causing a flood of gossip that her controlling husband Theo fears will cost him his government clerk job.
But Theo, played with cool, offhand chauvinism by Eddie Kaye Thomas, is quickly distracted by greed when a series of smitten male boarders who witnessed the undergarment indiscretion arrive to rent a room in the Maske home.
Joanna Glushak steals all her scenes as Gertrude, the nosy, sex-starved upstairs neighbor who encourages Louise to have an affair. Inexplicably, she’s the only actor in the cast using a German accent, but at least it’s funny. Luis Vega is charming and effervescent as the boarder Versati, a wealthy poet who finds himself more in love with his own words than the smitten Louise.
Although he shouts too many of his lines in the small in-the-round theater, Michael Bradley Cohen is a talented physical comedian as Cohen, the jealous Jewish barber who must hide his ethnicity in the increasingly anti-Semitic Germany. This identity-erasing act is played for laughs in the Mel Brooks style, but it’s unsettling. Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kris Zarif fill out the cast nicely in other roles.
A highlight of the production are the period costumes by Alejo Vietti, particularly the women’s dresses. Philip S. Rosenberg designed the lighting. Nevin Steinberg designed the sound.
“The Underpants” doesn’t offer much in social commentary, but like Louise’s panties, it’s light, fun and frilly.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 8.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623