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Review: Lingerie, laughs abound in Steve Martin farce

By Alex Wen

April 7, 2004 9:00 p.m.

It’s funny just imagining how much cleverness went into
creating the delightful silliness that is Steve Martin’s
unabashed “The Underpants,” leaving audiences in
stitches at the Geffen Playhouse now through May 2. Martin’s
laugh-your-pants-off comedy is bawdy, ballsy and unafraid to laugh
at both the audience and itself.

In short, it’s brilliant. This is what it must have felt
like for Restoration audiences watching, say, William
Wycherley’s “The Country Wife” or Aphra
Behn’s “The Rover” in that day and age. In this
respect, Martin has written a biting comedy of manners for our
times, and his effort is, to say the least, none too timely.
Martin’s deceivingly simple yet wickedly satirical adaptation
of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 sex farce is set around the turn of
the last century, but feels timeless, stinging in remote and
prominent places with an undertow of current political and social

Under the deft and spot-on direction of John Rando, a UCLA
alumnus and Tony award-winner for “Urinetown,”
Martin’s script sparkles and crackles with clockwork-perfect
high jinks, witty repartee and occasional moments of genuine

The story revolves around sweet, innocent Louise, played with
believability ““ and this in a farce ““ by the lovely and
engaging Meredith Patterson. Louise, like a restless caged
bird (and there’s an actual birdcage on stage to drive the
point home), is in her first year of marriage to bureaucrat Theo
Maske (Dan Castellaneta ““ the voice of Homer Simpson, no
less), a stuffy, cluelessly chauvinistic clerk serving in the court
of an unnamed king.

At a parade for the king, Louise’s panties drop to her
ankles in full view of some lucky members of the crowd. Since this
incident is only alluded to (it happens prior to the action of the
play), the Geffen audience is denied the initial pleasure despite
Louise’s best efforts to replicate the phenomenon. No big
worry, though, since the audience gets to see her underpants
anyway, lots of it and lots of times.

Needless to say, the incident sparks spectator-fetish (now, what
does this say about us?), and soon certain interested gentlemen
““ namely the Italian foppish gallant Versati (Anthony
Crivello) and the whiny, asthmatic barber Cohen (Patrick Kerr)
““ come calling to rent a room in the Maske household,
all drawn by the pull of Louise’s “wardrobe
malfunction” (turned into a well-timed Janet Jackson
reference, savored pitch-perfectly by Kerr).

“The Underpants” works its magic well in part to a
tight and compact script packed with trademark Martinesque humor,
but it is the contribution of Rando and his physically committed,
excellent ensemble cast that propels this production into the outer

Rando’s production standards are Broadway class, but it is
his instinctive understanding of comedy and comic timing that win
the day ““ sight gags worthy of Laurel and Hardy, the Three
Stooges and Charlie Chaplin compete for space and pace with verbal
jousts, wry double entendres and national lampooning of the highest

Wry humor aside, the crasser boob jokes and phallic plays are
priceless ““ if sexist only to the most dour of prudes ““
and Rando milks them to the last drop. Alexander Dodge’s
clever, classy, topsy-turvy set is a study in how many cuckoldry
and phallic images can be squeezed into a single set without being
in the least distasteful.

“The Underpants” delivers a silly good time while
still managing to deliver smart discourse on matters of gender
relations and the fleetingness of fame. Running about the length of
an average movie ““ with no intermission ““ it’s a
quick and witty little ditty that might just be the perfect
antidote to the type of perceived high-handedness and
pretentiousness that usually keeps the average Joe away from the

-Alex Wen

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