Steve Martin could fill an entire shelf at Blockbuster with his films. But the silver-haired entertainer writes a lot more than whacked-out movie scripts, which might surprise those who haven't read any of his New Yorker essays on everything from philosophy to grammar or his many books, including Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company and Pure Drivel. Martin, who studied philosophy for a while at the University of Long Beach, is a man of many talents. And it somehow makes perfect sense that the guy who got famous in what may be the ugliest plaid suit ever made would bring American audiences an adaptation of the irreverent turn-of-the-century German farce The Underpants, now playing in wild-and-crazy-guy style at the Alley Theatre.
Written in 1910 by Carl Sternheim (who had the distinction of being banned by both the Imperial German authorities and the Nazis), The Underpants tells the story of a pretty young matron named Louise Maske (Alyssa Rae) who loses her panties in public. The shameful act is not our blond heroine's fault. Like any good citizen, she's attending the king's parade, and when she stretches up on her tiptoes to get a better view, down go her apparently lovely knickers, quite by accident. All this happens before the opening scene, in which we meet Louise and her horrible, dunderheaded husband, Theo (John Tyson), as they return from the embarrassing event. Theo is outraged. He wrings his hands and shouts insults at Louise, worrying that his mid-level bureaucrat job will be in trouble should anyone find out about his wife's indiscretion. Louise is already too pretty for a man in his position, he declares. And worst of all, nobody will want to rent the open room in their apartment.
Poor Louise. Pretty as she is, she has dreadfully married. Her only real company comes from Gertrude Deuter (Elizabeth Heflin), the red-haired busybody upstairs who listens in on Louise's life via the vents in the ceiling. But Louise is in for an enormous change when not one but two men come asking about the room for rent. Though Theo doesn't realize it, we learn quickly enough that both Frank Versati (Todd Waite) and Benjamin Cohen (Jeffrey Bean) were at the parade, and both have been inspired by Louise's underpants.
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421
Through April 24. $19-$54.
In the best scene of the show, the long-legged, lavender-suited Waite -- who makes a wonderfully foppish Versati -- struts around Louise like a dandified praying mantis. While her husband is out, he promises Louise the sort of lovemaking she's been missing with her sexually stingy husband. Versati is, after all, a poet, and he's very good at promising the moon. The trembling Louise swoons at his lovely words. Gertrude adds fuel to the fire when she convinces the churchgoing Louise to act on her impulses, promising to stitch her a pair of purple pantaloons.
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Bean's Cohen comes along to muck up the affair, for he too is in love with Louise. Too bad he's such a balding stump of a hypochondriac. Louise does her best to rid herself of Cohen, but when he figures out what Versati's up to (Theo is too dull-witted to realize that his attractive wife is an object of universal desire), he decides it's his duty to keep Louise safe from Versati. Both men move in and share the room.
What follows is a slapstick comedy of errors infused with some philosophical musings about the short life of fame and the difficulties of balancing a private self with a public persona.
Under Scott Schwartz's direction, the production zips along. It lasts just under two hours without an intermission, and the time flies by. Still, lively as Martin's adaptation is, the show sags at moments, especially after Louise realizes that her fame is fleeting. She can't really do all that much about her lousy husband, as the story takes place back when good girls didn't divorce the boorish bears they regrettably married. And beautiful as she is, Louise isn't a particularly interesting character. She's full of adolescent desire she doesn't have the imagination to appease.
Truthfully, the Alley has done much better farces (Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, for example). It could be the fame of the writer that attracted the theater to this particular show. But the considerable talents of the company, especially Heflin, Waite and Bean, go a long way toward making the most of this slender script. And the snappy design team adds to the overall effect of the production. Anna Louizos has created a cartoonlike wonky apartment in shades of white, and David C. Woolard has fashioned some marvelously stylized turn-of-the-century costumes, including piles of cotton-candy hair. The end result is an often charming if not earth-shattering night of theater. Of course, there are several laugh-out-loud moments of comedy -- we'd expect nothing less from Steve Martin.