Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review of "The Underpants" at Hartford Stage

Comedian Steve Martin began his illustrious career as an Emmy Award winning writer on the 1960’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Since then, besides his stand-up comedy and acting roles, he has penned numerous screenplays, authored books, and crafted plays.  One of his most staged productions, The Underpants, a adaptation of a 1910 German farce, is a lighthearted, often funny undertaking is at Hartford Stage through February 9th.

The story centers on Louise, the young, naïve wife of a seemingly strait-laced bureaucrat, who’s underpants have accidentally slipped off while the two are watching a parade.  This sets off a sometimes silly, occasionally hilarious, sexually tinged rollercoaster of a ride as Louise tries to placate her whining, emotionless husband and deals with the advances of two men who witnessed her wardrobe malfunction, Versati, a handsome bon vivant and Cohen, an older, balding, milquetoast gentleman.  Both vie to rent the room the couple has to let in order to be near her so they can woo and seduce her.  To complicate matters Louise approves of Versati’s advances and, aided by her upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, seeks to consummate the pairing.  There is, of course, the problem of deflecting Cohen’s intrusions and avoiding her loudmouth, civil servant husband in order to make the deed a reality.

Steve Martin shows his wild and crazy, not too subtle, side with acrobatic wordplay, well-defined characters, and more often then not some uproariously written scenes.  The Underpants does peter out towards the end, almost as if the playwright couldn’t come up with a self-satisfying ending.  Still, for audiences not afraid of provocative banter and the intermittent off-color scene the play has enough laughs and admirable performances to warrant a trip to downtown Hartford.

The cast is thoroughly appealing and a joy to watch.  Jeff McCarthy is marvelous as the pugnacious, irritating, and obtuse husband, Theo.  You just want to reach out and bop him on the head.  Jenny Leona, beautiful as the dutiful and yearning wife, Louise, amusingly exudes a repressed sexual desire.  Burke Moses seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as the self-possessed, egotistical poet, Versati.  For someone better known in the musical theater world (he was the original Beast on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast) Moses gets an opportunity to overly emote without having to burst into song.  Steven Routman, as the mousy, jealous barber, Cohen, with his pauses and befuddled looks, gives the most consistently side-splitting performance of the show.  Didi Conn, is effervescent and bubbly as the deviously plotting neighbor, Gertrude.  The stage is aglow every time she enters a scene.

Director Gordon Edelstein keeps the action fast-paced and the comedic timing perfectly in sync.  He gives the actors room for their own schtick, without completely going beyond the structure of the play.

The Underpants, an amusing and entertaining diversion, perfect to alleviate any mid-winter blues.  Now at Hartford Stage through February 9th.

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