WCT’s ‘The underpants’ reveals a good bit of satire
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published Feb. 12, 2019
Steve Martin had his hands in “The Underpants,” and you can see the famous comedian’s humor at work here.
Based on a 1910 German farce by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s is the latest adaptation of the play.
The show, presented at Waukesha Civic Theatre, has a quirky premise that leads to all sorts of clever conversation and scenarios about the roles of men and women, with satirical political and social overtones. Even though it is 1910 Germany, the voices resonate today – with a definite comic edge pulled off nicely by this cast of six, directed by Phil Stepanski.
At the heart of this offbeat story is Louise, a housewife and newish wife of Theo, a clerk. “I have descended from a long line of government clerks. You have descended from a long line of little housewives,” says Theo, the epitome of male chauvinism, to his wife.
It seems Louise has suffered quite an indignity while watching the king’s parade. While jockeying to get a good glimpse of the king, her underpants inexplicably fell to her feet. Apparently this was not that unusual in the days before elastic. In the opening scene, Theo (Noah Maguire) is stomping about his home, screaming at his wife about the embarrassment this mishap has caused the household, endangering their reputation and, he thinks, perhaps his job.
The meek, dutiful Louise (Brenda Poppy) hopes that the incident will not cause any trouble, until a man comes to inquire about a room the couple has for rent. Louise agrees to rent him the room. The man, Versati (Michael Chobanoff), a poet, admits that he had seen Louise’s fallen garment and was smitten by the wearer, much to Louise’s surprise.
Versati has found his muse in Louise, telling her: “You are the flint; I am the fire; your husband is a piece of dead wood.”
But when Theo returns, he brings with him another man, a barber named Cohen (Landon Quinney), who is also interested in renting the room. Cohen, too, had seen Louise’s undergarment at the parade. Says Theo, “Never underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie.”
Fearing that he won’t get the room if Theo thinks he is Jewish, Cohen tells Theo his surname starts with a “K.”
Louise, who has never been able to please the demanding Theo as a housewife, finds herself living with two boarders enchanted by her. Egging her on is her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Maureen Chobanoff), who is only too happy to hear of Louise’s newfound lust and her plans to act on her desires. “Deception, lying, trickery: my little girl is all grown up, “coos Gertrude to Louise, adding, “I want to drink in your happiness.” Chobanoff gives Gertrude an engaging, dramatic presence, as she flutters in and out of Louise’s home offering advice on her love life.
Early in Act II, Theo has quite a long conversation as the barber and poet continue their quest of Louise. Says the barber, Cohen, “My instinct was to protect; his is to possess.”
For Maguire, the scene is the centerpiece of a marvelous performance as the arrogant, insensitive, overbearing Theo. He stomps about his home like it’s his own soapbox, belittling his wife while spouting his middle-class thoughts.
The more Theo theorizes, the more women in the audience will likely want to smack him. This is exactly the response that his character should elicit as he says such things as, “Only men should have affairs.” He chides poets, contending, “A giraffe is like a poet – they both make no sense.” He says the poet is “like a woman” and “not a man,” proclaiming “I am a man.”
There are lots of racy double entendres here and snappy wordplay to keep audiences on their toes.
Maguire sets the tone for the play with his spot-on characterization of Theo, though his German accent occasionally gets in the way of word clarity. As the browbeaten Louise, Poppy transforms nicely, giving the mousy Louise room to grow into her own woman. Her understated presentation adds some nice bits of humor, as when she jumps up and down, wondering aloud, “Why did they fall?”
Maureen’s real-life husband Michael has a good time with the flighty poet, Versati, giving him a grand persona as he is jolted by inspiration, such as when he compares himself and Louise to a tightly woven scarf: “I am the warp, you are the weft.”
Quinney’s barber character is nicely drawn. The slight Quinney has a real gift for physical humor. When Cohen is drugged by Louise, he turns into jelly as he tries to get up the stairs. He looks like a Dali painting, draped over the steps until he pulls himself into his room. A funny bit.
Doug Smedbron provides a brief, but memorable portrayal of Klinglehoff, a staid scientist who puts an exclamation point on the show and delivers one of the more memorable lines: "I cannot believe such filth has penetrated the German household,” Smedbron’s character says at one point. “You're acting like an American!"
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “The Underpants”
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/Info: 262-547-0708; www.waukeshacivictheatre.org