Just in time for an escape from too many holiday-spiked eggnog toasts, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) provides an appealing, sugar-coated farce to indulge audiences. It will especially ring with those wanting something often scarce on a cold winter night in December: adult-ish entertainment without a nutcracker or an angel earning wings.
The production is an original one – The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class by the prolific playwright and STC audience favorite David Ives. His new play is a cute, rather endearing comedy (three well-connected playlets), inspired by the work of Carl Sternheim (1878-1942). Sternheim was noted for taking sharp potshots at the emerging middle class and the social climbers of class-bound German society before the rise of Nazism changed everything.
Vaulting across locations with three generations of the Mask family, The Panties, The Partner and The Profit skips from lower-middle-class 1950 Boston (think nostalgic black-and-white episodes of The Honeymooners), to 1987 on Wall Street (with a visual and verbal nod to the lifestyles of the folk on prime-time soap operas like Dallas), to a lavish, techie haven of a Pacific Palisades home high on a bluff overlooking the ocean sometime “tomorrow” (think of some unnamed techie god or goddess leaning in to their riches living with Hal 9000). The production engages in generous social commentary, while never becoming dark. Ayn Rand does get a shake, as do the descendants of Paul Revere.
The Panties, The Partner and The Profit is performed under the snappy, clever direction and splendid casting of Michael Kahn. He keeps the physical action, the comic banter, the repartee between characters moving even as the wind-up toy of a script begins to tire and slow searching for an appropriate final curtain – in this case, with papayas as the centerpiece.
The delightful comic ensemble of Julia Coffey, Carson Elrod, Kimberly Gilbert, Kevin Isola, Turna Mete and Tony Roach make The Panties, The Partner and The Profit a gleeful evening. Each of the actors appears as several unique characters in the overall production.
It all begins with the charming Kimberly Gilbert as 1950 housewife Louise Mask who has the elastic of her white cotton panties fail, causing her panties to fall down. (We never see this, we only hear about it.) Men sadly being men, the mere thought of Louise going “commando” with her panties at her feet causes a major erotic commotion. Each time that Gilbert says “I didn’t lose them, they fell down” about her panties to her mostly uninterested husband (winningly portrayed by Carson Elrod), the Lansburgh audience also fell down…into sweet giggles. The word “panties” is pronounced with major emphasis by everyone in the production.
Red silk panties as a male fetish object make an appearance in each of the production’s playlets. Well, “almost silk,” as the marvelous Julia Coffey calls her stored-away red panties in her role as wanting-to-be-loved Trudy Reezner. The red panties become real silk red panties when Coffey portrays the uber-rich Sybil Rittenhouse in the second playlet of the evening, entitled The Partner. A woman’s hat is another (though less erotic) fetish object that generates interest, as does the time “11:07” mentioned as a marker throughout the production.
Lines like “I’m yours, take me” reverberate across the three playlets, each time from different couples and with different results. Family secrets are explored, including who is related to whom across generations and does being half-Jewish (a headstrong Kevin Isola as Christian Mask, son of Louise Mask) mean you can’t be a partner in an old-line WASP Wall Street firm?
The Profit is the final of the three playlets. It focuses on the Mask grandchildren, now residing in California. One (Kimberly Gilbert) is a powerful, spoiled tech billionaire who only wants more money, while the other (Turna Mete) decides that they should lead a simpler life with no money at all. These two are joined by a distant poor relative (Carson Elrod) hoping to get a piece of the family’s once huge fortune, along with a woman named Omega (Julia Coffey) who takes on a blazing finger-pointing persona attacking the ills of the world as she perceives them. Tony Roach makes an indelible appearance as a surfer hunk prophet with a spiritual line that others, including a homeless Rabbi (Kevin Isola) easily swallow. And then Mother Nature takes charge of all of their lives, leading to the production’s thin denouement.
While the comedy is fast and furious, subversive social commentary is downplayed. The characters do raise questions about the negatives of capitalism, asking if compassion has a future or if anyone can live without money. Alas, the production’s final scene had a lag to it. The characters just didn’t come away with something profound to say; they came across more like privileged and silly West Coast stereotypes.
The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class has a terrific technical design team. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge has a smoothly running turntable with vastly different visuals to enthrall and connect the three playlets. Frank Labovitz’s outfits give the time periods and characters clear delineation. I give high marks to the six members of the STC overhire wig builders and wig crew. What they do is blissful.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class is frothy entertainment. It can take one’s mind away from pressing, bigger things for a couple of hours. Given the current state of affairs around town, I was glad for the night away from deep social commentary and subtext.
Running time: About one hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class plays through January 6, 2019, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at the Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or go online.