Those leaving Guild Hall nonplussed after seeing their production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants (through June 26) would do well to remember the words of Klinglehoff, spoken in the second act.
This proper gentleman, when asked if disturbed by a rowdy scene happening onstage involving—yes—underpants, replies in the negative. Looking straight into the audience, he explains why. “I know that it’s not happening.” Oddly enough, the audience is in a similar situation: We’ve known all along that none of what has taken place onstage has actually happened. This makes The Underpants an unusual theatrical experience, and great fun once you get used to it.
In adapting the Carl Sternheim’s 1911 play Die Hose from the original German (the title does translate approximately to “the underpants”), Steve Martin delved into a theatrical tradition that revels in artifice. As opposed to the English-speaking world’s preoccupation with establishing a believable “reality” onstage (triggering that willing suspension of disbelief we all learned about in English class), this tradition continually goes out of its way to remind us that what’s happening is, in fact, theater—and false by its very nature.
Everything about The Underpants, from the ridiculous happenstance that sets the plot in motion, to the enthusiastic inter-act polkas, is calculated to keep the audience in continuous awareness of the essential fakery of theater. It makes for a joyful romp.
Klinglehoff, played at Guild Hall with Prussian precision by Tuck Milligan, is just one of a set of stock characters populating the stage. Marianna McClellan plays Louise Maske, the young, beautiful and absurdly innocent wife of straight-laced, patronizing government clerk Theo Maske (Mark David Watson). When the string holding up Louise’s underpants inexplicably fails while she is in a crowd watching the king go by in a parade, she is suddenly awakened to an unfamiliar world of desire and sensuality—a world for which she is comically unprepared and yet is curiously drawn to. She is encouraged in her incipient infidelity by Gertrude Deuter, the nosy, middle-aged bawd who lives upstairs (played with obvious relish by the wonderful Sabrina Profitt). The familiar outlines of a stock cuckold story come into view.
Among those who witnessed Louise’s brief moment of exposure is Frank Versati (the very funny Daniel Passer), whose Italian accent (the rest of the company speak in broad German accents), colorful outfit and white makeup mark him as a clown straight out of the commedia dell’arte. Smitten with Louise because of her wardrobe malfunction, he arrives to work his charms upon her, but is soon joined by Benjamin Cohen (Broadway veteran Michael Brian Dunn), who also saw Louise inadvertently drop trou and is instantly jealous of the attention she pays to Versati. The two duke it out over the flustered Louise, while her clueless husband tries to lord his superior status over them.
The brilliant staging at Guild Hall features a cabaret-style lighted proscenium, emphasizing the overt staginess of the show—every once in a while, the lights even go into flash mode. A slide whistle is heard to mark some of the more slapstick moments in the script. It’s that kind of show.
Expect to be dazzled by the acting, teased by the naughtiness, and amused by the smart jokes. Just don’t expect to believe it.
Steve Martin’s The Underpants will be at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton, through Sunday, June 26. For more information call the box office at 631-324-4050 or go to guildhall.org.