Are these the underpants that launched a thousand laughs?
In a word, yes, but maybe it’s because “underpants” is such a funny word.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre opened its 31st season with the San Diego premiere of “The Underpants,” a 1910 comedy written by German-born, anxiety-ridden Carl Sternheim and adapted by American-born, banjo-plucking Steve Martin.
More than a century has passed since Sternheim’s original look at what ensues following the inadvertent dropping of one’s drawers in public.
But has much changed since the play was written?
Yes and no, but for starters, the play can be performed today without any fear of its being banned as it was initially in 1911 because of its subject matter — though its mildly-ribald lines may have the power enough to make some current audiences noticeably blush, even in the dark.
But there’s more at play in “The Underpants,” than what could be one of the first documented cases of a “wardrobe malfunction.”
Louise Maske, played with a warm and sympathetic performance by Holly Rone, is an attractive housewife about to mark her one year anniversary to her portly, Philistine-of-a-husband Theobald, played by an appropriately hulking Matthew Henerson, when her underpants inexplicably fall to her ankles during a parade for the German King.
The circumstance spawns temporary fame, sparks desire and romance and stimulates jealousy in the certain players, all except Theo who is intent to face things as they are. His only concern is what this will mean for him — will it be a scandal? Will he be able to keep his job as a bureaucrat in a government office?
Theo fears the imagination and notes how the “unexplainable makes him nervous,” as he reads a news story on the discovery of a monster in Loch Ness. He eagerly spews male chauvinistic standards as his wife’s duties are to “serve me dinner” and to “keep the place nice;” that poetry is unmanly and that “only men should have affairs.”
There is little to celebrate in the marriage. The couple’s anniversary is an afterthought to Theo whose thought on the day is that his pork chop is cooked correctly. Not since their wedding night has Louise been touched by her husband, she says.
Following her indecent incident, which spawns a number of suitors at the sight of the underpants in public (“Never underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie,” Martin said), Louise is aroused by the romantic attentions of poet Frank Versati, played by Jacob Bruce, an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Diego. “My pulse,” she says, “It exists.”
Omri Schein is the jealous Benjamin Cohen.
Cohen looks to rent a room in the Maske apartment after witnessing the underpants event and being overcome with desire for Louise. Schein is one of the more mobile of the performers onstage, wearing his shoulders up near his ears but who stomps and flops around the stage under his self-imposed duty to be the “prophylactic” of any extramarital advances between Versati and Louise.
Though Cohen would prefer the affair happen with him, if it didn’t happen with anyone that Director Mark Pinter has the comedic timing drawn tightly throughout the nearly two-hour performance.
Marty Burnett’s set design (the entire show takes place in the Maske’s apartment) is a composition of corrugated, jagged angles of the most German Expressionist-kind, a-la “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” that encapsulates the players’ innuendo — some of it subtle; some of it overt. Actress Clarinda Ross as the eavesdropping upstairs neighbor Gertrude, who encourages the affair between Louise and Versati, tells Louise, “You need something in you besides Sauerkraut.”
Martin’s adaptation of “The Underpants” has the feel of some of his original works, including his films “L.A. Story” and “Roxanne,” and his short novels. He isn’t shy about sex; he isn’t prudish when talking about women’s anatomy, but maybe there’s a lack of thoughtfulness behind this particular work.
“The Underpants” isn’t filled, for better or worse, with people wearing arrows through their heads, and there are no banjos — but it is filled with plenty of laughs.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. Suite D, Solana Beach
When: Now through Sept. 30; Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 8 p.m.; Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.