Regina De Vera (left) and Joanna Glushak in "The Underpants." Photo by Jim Cox
The Underpants of Steve Martin’s 2002 adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s farce Die Hose belong to Louise Maske, a German housewife in the early 20th century who inadvertently drops her unmentionables in public with the result of turning on a couple of prospective renters of the room she and her husband Theo are letting. One is a dashing poet, Versati, who can’t get out of the way of his own swooning verbiage; the other is Cohen, a rank hypochondriac. In the noisy, 90-minute romp inside the Old Globe’s intimate White Theatre, Versati (Luis Vega) and Cohen (Michael Bradley Cohen) make their plays for Louise (Regina De Vera) while the unsuspecting Theo (Eddie Kaye Thomas) goes about his chauvinistic business.
I didn’t find The Underpants all that funny the first time I saw it, seven years ago at the North Coast Rep in Solana Beach, nor do I find it that funny today. Its shouting and pratfalling come off like a more risqué sketch from “The Carol Burnett Show,” with everyone acting out in glorious costume and full throat. Cohen (as Cohen) does it best of anyone in the cast, which also includes Joanna Glushak as the flushed and horny neighbor Gertrude, and Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kris Zarif in more minor roles. Tossing the Maskes’ house cats (and kicking one) is played for laughs, as is the repeated, uncomfortable bit of renter Cohen pretending not to be Jewish. The Martin strategy seems to be if something works once, why not work it again? And again?
Say this for the Old Globe production directed by Walter Bobbie: It employs some canny stage effects. The cats, they who eventually go flying, are animated with lifelike movements such as flopping tails. Recorded snippets of music, whether to evoke Wagner or to set the mood for a sexy seduction, accompany the action. An animatronic bird in a cage (an unsubtle metaphor for Louise perhaps?) suspended from above does everything but shed feathers.
This play has deep connections to the Old Globe. Die Hose was introduced to Martin by now-Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, who also directed the world premiere of The Underpants in New York 17 years ago. Its run (through Sept. 8) in Balboa Park this summer is likely to be a busy and well-attended one.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/7/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.