One attends The Underpants with some trepidation. The title alone could be a turnoff for some as it’s not a garment widely discussed in finer circles. But then you discover the masterful Hollywood comic Steve Martin has adapted and etched his own style of wit into a German play from early last century called Die Hose, written by Carl Sternheim. The outcome is great entertainment, a mixture of clever, witty dialogue and nonsense.
Underpants feature prominently from the outset. Theo (Duncan Fellows) and his wife Louise (Gabrielle Scawthorn) have just returned home from seeing the Kaiser’s parade in the local park. Louise is sitting still at the dining table as she endures a tongue lashing from Theo about the great shame she has just inflicted on him. In front of a massive crowd, Louise’s underpants fell to the ground. To make matters worse, she then bent over to pick them up. Theo is livid, fearful that powerful people were at the parade and will use this embarrassing situation to threaten his job as a government assistant clerk.
There is no sympathy or empathy for poor Louise. Theo’s tirade expands to criticise Louise for other homely failings such as not having dinner ready when he gets home. “I want to stop nagging you, but you won’t let me,” exclaims Theo in true, chauvinistic style. Theo embodies a classic Germanic male stereotype from pre-WWI. With three clocks on the wall, a crucifix and a portrait of the Kaiser, his life is dictated by precision and strong conservative values. But he’s pragmatic as well and his firm opinions are often contradicted by his actions.
The young couple want to start a family soon, however Theo wants to be financially secure first. So, he’s had the second bedroom advertised for rent. This becomes the catalyst for the other characters to emerge and some very funny scenes ensue. First, we meet Frank (Ben Gerrard), a flamboyant and confident Italian. He has seen Theo’s ad and, more importantly, he saw Louise’s underpants fall in the park and is now besotted. His attempts to seduce Louise are persistent. Another witness to the events in the park is Benjamin (Robin Goldsworthy), a small, sickly man who has the same intent and desires as Frank. Theo couldn’t be happier as he now has two tenants sharing the spare room.
Gertrude (Beth Daly) is the matronly neighbour from downstairs who can overhear all that is going on. She wants to play out her own desires by encouraging Louise to accept Frank’s advances. In doing so, she has a first-hand seduction of her own from an unexpected source. Among all the romantic trysts enters Klinglehoff (Tony Taylor), a serious scientist who just wants a room to rent. He knows nothing about the underpants, but his mild dementia makes him an unwitting player in the hijinks that surrounds him.
The set and costumes match the period perfectly. There is a wonderfully choreographed dance scene and slow-motion fight sequence, which have Martin’s brand of humour all over them. The play includes some anti-Semitic references, mild in nature, which today feel out of place. However, they typify the European social attitudes of 100 years ago and therefore keep this play true to the original Die Hose.
The two lead actors, Gabrielle Scawthorn and Duncan Fellows were notable for their performances. Ninety minutes without interval, I found The Underpants, directed by Anthony Gooley, to be welcome comic relief. It is playing at Seymour Centre until 23rd November, 2019.