Review: ‘The Underpants’ at Rockville Little Theatre

Review by Bob Ashby

The Underpants, an intermittently amusing adaptation by Steve Martin of a 1911 script by German playwright Carl Sternheim, concluded its run at Rockville Little Theater on February 4, 2018.

The German original, Die Hose, was the first, and best known, of a series of four Sternheim plays satirizing the lives and pretensions of the German middle class in the pre- and post-World War I period. Its premise, like that of the Martin adaptation, is that Louise Maske, an attractive young married woman watching a parade, suffered a wardrobe malfunction when the ties holding up her bloomers gave way, briefly revealing the garment to enthralled onlookers.

Louise (Alexandra Guyker) is less bothered by her brief notoriety than her almost heroically stuffy husband, Theo (Phillip Hosford), who fears career repercussions.

Louise labors under her demanding husband’s insistence that she be the perfect little housewife while suffering his chronic sexual neglect.

To supplement Theo’s modest income as a government clerk, the Maskes are renting out their second bedroom. Two men drawn irresistibly by their glimpse of Louise’s bloomers arrive to rent the room: Frank Versati (Zack Pajack), a poet whose florid words nearly charm Louise out of her knickers, and Benjamin Cohen (Mickey MacIntyre), a hypochondriacal barber who tries ineptly to hide the fact that he is a Jew. The practical Theo rents the room to both of them, with a divider down the middle.   

Both boarders lust after Louise who, prodded by her exceptionally nosy upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Deuter (Jill Goodrich), is all too ready to be seduced. Gertrude, ever helpful and handy, volunteers to produce silky bloomers that no man could resist. Comic complications ensue. Louise gives a sleeping potion to Benjamin to get him out of the way, hoping that Frank will return from a night on the town with Theo to finally match his words with action. Theo takes a stab at seducing Gertrude.  A third potential boarder, Klinglehoff (Stuart Rick) enters with an overbearing list of demands for his potential landlord.  

The ensemble playing among the cast is flawless, with Director Karen Fleming keeping the pace quick throughout, as it must be for the piece to work. Hosford’s handling of the language and unselfconscious tyranny of his character is especially impressive. Pajack and MacIntyre, in roles not intended for naturalistic acting, take their characters well over the top, their comedy deriving largely from the exaggeration. Guyker brings an appealing innocence to Louise, as well as displaying her character’s sexual frustration and need. Once that need is on its way to satisfaction, Louise appears to accept her domestic situation – no Nora slamming the door for her.

The technical side of the production is exemplary. The realistic set, designed by Bill Dunbar, with set dressing by Maria Littlefield, is attractive, detailed, and conveys effectively the middle-class comfort of the period. A particularly nice moment involved smoke pouring out the oven door when Louise burns some sausages. Sound designer Nick Sampson provides relentlessly cheerful, polka-centered musical background for the proceedings, underlining the antic nature of the material. The costumes and wigs, designed by Elizabeth Dessbach and Stephen Welch, respectively, are both period-appropriate and individually suited to each character.  

As one would expect from Martin, there are clever lines scattered throughout. Benjamin at one point objects to the word “barbaric” as being offensive to barbers. Frank tells Theo, “It was Descartes who said that we exist,” to which Theo responds “Someone had to say that?” At times, the humor gets a bit arch, as when Louise returns from the theater and says that she saw “the new Sternheim comedy…needs to be adapted.”

The play has elements of farce, satire on the bourgeoisie, and commentary on gender politics and the benefits and burdens of brief celebrity, which do not always form a seamless whole. There is not a great deal of risk poking fun at the pretensions of an old-school male chauvinist or an airy aesthetic poet. Generally, the stakes do not seem very high through much of the play, which undermines its ability to be comically compelling. These issues inhere in the script, however, and not in Rockville Little Theatre’s presentation of it, in which the company can justly take pride.

The Underpants plays through February 4th, 2018 at Rockville Little Theater, performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre – 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets to this and future productions, call (240) 314-8690 or go online.