18 June 2005: Sternheim, The Underpants

New Century Theatre, Smith College. Adapted by Steve Martin. Directed by Jack Neary

A play in the classic manner of French farce. A damn silly play that makes you laugh a lot (“Liquid still flows through rusty pipes”) and reflect some too, afterwards. Martin has the farceur’s gift and has put it to good use in adapting a play that one suspects did need to be adapted. Neary’s casting is very good, espec­ially in the case of Benjamin Cohen, played by Steve Brody in a return engage­ment from last season’s Sheridan Whiteside. Brody has the talent for very clear, serviceable exaggeration and impeccable timing (he verbally leaps at every cue and jumps a lot of them).

There is a kind of sexist double-think going on in this play. On the one hand, Louise Mashe has inadvertently allowed her underpants to fall to her ankles as she is watching a parade highlighted by the presence of the king him­self. Almost immediately men begin showing up to rent the room Louise and her dim-witted husband Theo have advertised by means of a sign in their window, drawn by the erotic prospect of getting close to this erotic object. (Invariably, one of them, Klinglehoff, shows up simply because he needs a room and knows nothing of the underpants fiasco.) Theo is mortified by what has happened and predicts dire results. In this society a great weight is placed on women’s acting with propriety and modesty. And yet at the same time the fact that women are seen largely as erotic objects endows them with a nearly unlimited power over men. The play ends with the appearance of the king himself, who wants to rent the rooms “to get away from it all.” Louise fairly crows over her mastery of these men, all of it brought about by her unintentional social gaffe.

Thus Carl Sternheim, as “translated” by Martin, uncovers the truth, hidden beneath the propriety of women’s decorous outer clothing, that sex is the drive that moves men to make fools of themselves and allows women, in a delicious vengeance, to triumph over them.

Sometimes you want a play with real substance; sometimes you just want a good laugh. The NCT season is off to a good, if finally undistinguished, start with this pleasant romp.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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