Start with a title like The Underpants and you get an automatic cackle, or at least a hee-hee or a ha-ha. More of the latter is elicited by North Coast Rep’s production of a broad comedy adapted by Steve Martin. Yes, THAT Steve Martin – comedian, actor, banjo player, novelist and, in this case, playwright. Martin’s The Underpants is based on German Expressionist Carl Sternheim’s 1910 morals-busting play Die Hose. It has its moments, but excuuuuuuze me, Mr. Martin, The Underpants is a funnier title than it is a show.
Though it premiered 10 years ago off Broadway, The Underpants is just now having its San Diego premiere, directed by Mark Pinter and opening North Coast Rep’s 31st season. Set in Dusseldorf shortly after the turn of the 20th century, The Underpants waffles uneasily between anti-establishment commentary and near-slapstick. When oppressed (and suppressed) wife Louise (Holly Rone) accidentally drops her underpants during a town parade for the king, stuffy and chauvinistic husband Theo (Matthew Henerson) harrumphs and goes to the toilet a lot (actually, too much), while two turned-on witnesses to Louise’s mishap (Jacob Bruce and Omri Schein) vie for the married couple’s room for rent. Louise’s upstairs crony Gertrude (Clarinda Ross) pops in to encourage her frustrated friend’s infidelity … and discovers that there’s another side to blustering Theo.
It’s all sincerely overplayed. Schein seems to be auditioning for a Mel Brooks picture. Bruce, one of the aspiring lovers in the first four scenes, goes all Will Ferrell in the final scene as the monocled king. The sweet-faced Rone comes to resemble a horny Mary Poppins. Consummate pro Jonathan McMurtry turns up as a third would-be renter, but too late to elevate the proceedings above good time had by all.
The zaniness has Martin’s stamp on it, but as with some of his own performing shtick, it’s hit and miss. There isn’t one sight gag here as howling as Navin R. Johnson’s “The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!” exultation in “The Jerk.” As for mocking the neo-priggishness of our times, The Underpants is rather flimsy.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.