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Exposing more than 'Underpants'

Steve Martin turns an obscure 1911 German play into a relevant examination of momentary fame in modern America.

March 14, 2004|Richard Stayton | Special to The Times

Steve MARTIN has had more than 25 years to contemplate the nature of fame, and he has a few favorite tales of his own.

"I had a hat and sunglasses on," he says, "which is what I always wear. I'm not trying to disguise myself." Indeed, Martin had just entered the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel lobby for a series of meetings wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses. "A guy passed by and said ..." -- Martin leans low to whisper in a conspiratorial accent -- " 'Enjoy your anonymity.' Then the guy walked on into the park."

The very famous comic laughs happily, delighted by the ironies. "That's my favorite!" But some moments are less lighthearted. Last week, Martin went to see rehearsals for "The Underpants," which opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday. It has been more than two years since Martin last saw his adaptation of German playwright Carl Sternheim's obscure 1911 satire, and he had forgotten its climactic moment. Watching it, he felt, was suddenly "chilling." In the Peninsula hotel, Martin now repeats his heroine's words, employing a veteran actor's character-driven empathy: "Something leaves me surprisingly empty...." Pause. "My fame is gone."

In the age of Paris Hilton and reality TV, are there more chillingly silly words to be uttered? Since he wrote "The Underpants" for the Classic Stage Company in New York in 2002, Martin has been working, doing stuff few famous people do: hosting the 75th annual Academy Awards; adapting and acting in a film version of his best-selling novella "Shopgirl" to be released this fall); writing a second novel, "The Pleasure of My Company"; starring in "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House"; and writing "The Pink Panther," a prequel to the popular series and the first to star Martin as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. For such an artist, work is integral to fame.

When the Classic Stage's then-artistic director Barry Edelstein invited him to try adapting a play he'd never heard of, Martin simply said, "I like the title." He then proceeded to take what was essentially a political and marital farce and turn it into an exploration of the vagaries of fame. The premise remains that of the original: In 1910 Dusseldorf, Germany, during a full-dress military parade, the wife of a petty state bureaucrat drops her underpants as the kaiser rides by. Was it an accident? Or was it a Freudian slip by a sex-starved, neglected, bored housewife? Public scandal leads to notoriety, which leads to a brief flirtation with potential seducers who glimpsed her private parts, which leads to 15 minutes of dubious fame before the housewife is abruptly discarded back into grim obscurity.

At least that's how Sternheim's original satire of adultery concluded. However, Martin invented scenes, changed the ending and "modernized" the story. It is his own words, not Sternheim's, that sent a chill through the visiting playwright during the rehearsal.

"She was briefly the center of attention," Martin says with lingering traces of sorrow for his middle-class heroine. "I think about people who had momentary fame for a couple of years and then it's gone -- people in reality TV or a one-hit wonder in the music industry. Child actors have to deal with it a lot. They grow older, they're not on a sitcom anymore ... or when events thrust people into fame...."

He pulls another story from his personal narrative file. "During the O.J. Simpson [case]," he remembers, "I was in Europe, so I missed a lot of the details of what was going on. I happened to see the car chase [on TV] and that was about it. Weeks later, I came back to L.A. I was at a little lunch restaurant on Melrose, and a guy came up to my table, stuck out his hand, and said, 'Steve. Kato.' I didn't know who he was. His fame was kind of accidental, or tangential, and that's what this play was about for me."

But finding that meaning was difficult work for Martin at first, even with a literal translation from the German that had been commissioned by the Classic Stage Company.

"Die Hosen," Sternheim's first in a six-play cycle titled "Comedies from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class," was banned by the imperial authorities and then by the Nazis. For the world premiere, which was staged by the legendary Max Reinhardt, the Berlin censor would approve its production only after the title was changed to "The Giant," a reference to the heroics of the bombastic, egomaniacal husband whose machismo doesn't include sexually satisfying his wife. (Later English titles include "The Unmentionables" and "A Pair of Drawers.")

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