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Knickers bring snickers

Steve Martin's 'Underpants' adaptation proves Teutonic works have comedic value.

March 19, 2004|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

What's the famous saying about German comedies? Oh, that's right -- there isn't one.

Teutonic literature has long been famous for its philosophical prose and introspective drama, but theatrical comedy -- and especially farce -- is usually considered to be better off in the hands of Germany's neighbor to the west, the French. But perhaps the laughs have merely been lost in translation all these years? If Steve Martin started adapting the works of Schiller and Goethe, maybe we'd finally see them for the laugh riots they really are.

Martin's recent adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1910 farce "Die Hose" (translated as "The Underpants") certainly suggests that Deutschland may indeed be an untapped source of stage comedy. "The Underpants" is just one of a tetralogy of domestic satires written by the Leipzig-born playwright, and if the laughter accompanying its productions in New York -- and now Los Angeles -- is any indication, America seems ready for more Sternheim.

The events in "The Underpants," which opened Wednesday night at the Geffen Playhouse, follow the brief notoriety that comes to Louise Maske, a young and attractive Dusseldorf housewife, after her knickers fall down during a parade for the king. While her husband is furious about the incident, he is seemingly unaware of the rush of men trying to rent their spare room to get close to his now-infamous wife.

The character of Louise is the key role in Martin's version of "The Underpants." In the New York premiere, she was performed by Cheryl Lynn Bowers as a sort of urban Madame -- or Frau -- Bovary. Exuding a wide-eyed innocence, Bowers made it clear that Louise was a girl forced into marriage early and that she quietly had doubts about the whole structure of her middle-class life.

At the Geffen, Louise is played with considerable charm by Meredith Patterson. Patterson is a stable presence in the central role, and her comedic talents are well showcased, especially when she throws herself at Versati, a hunky Italian poet (Anthony Crivello). However, Patterson's Louise is decidedly too mature. Louise is written as a confused twentysomething newlywed, yet Patterson makes her feel like a resigned thirtysomething veteran of married life -- instead of Emma Bovary, her Louise suggests Lucy Ricardo.

This problem is only exacerbated by the decision to have the older neighbor, Gertrude, play Ethel Mertz to Louise's Lucy. Gertrude (Amy Aquino) is written as much older than Louise, which makes her meddling seem like a mix of mentorship and living vicariously through youth; but in this production, Gertrude is played as if she is roughly the same age as Louise, so her part feels like merely a sitcom stereotype: the wacky upstairs neighbor.

Unfortunately, director John Rando has allowed the staging to slouch toward TV sitcoms in a few other places as well: the cartoonish incidental music, the flat, high-key lighting, and especially the bright, over-the-top costumes.

Some of Louise's dresses seem like leftovers from the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in "The Producers," and the king's outfit makes him look like a Russian Boyar instead of a German monarch. One has to think this sitcom style is intentional (perhaps to show how television borrowed so heavily from pre-WWII theater?), but it doesn't serve the more nuanced elements of Martin's adaptation or Sternheim's original.

Ironically, one of the least sitcomic aspects of the play is the performance by Dan Castellaneta, an actor known mainly as the voice of Homer Simpson.

Onstage at the Geffen, Castellaneta takes a break from playing a plump American loafer and has no problem fitting into the part of a trim German bureaucrat. Far from looking like the "muscular fireplug" described in the script, Castellaneta's sleek build, trim mustache and big, round eyes make his Theo resemble a gentleman from a Modigliani painting -- yet here, the casting against type works. The husband is little more than a European Al Bundy, but Castellaneta raises Theo above caricature while preserving his inflated, self-important folly.

While on the subject of folly, one has to mention the comic performance of Patrick Kerr. Kerr plays Cohen, a Jewish barber and one of Louise's admirers. He twitches, sniffles and snorts his way through the role (at times Kerr seems to be channeling the adapter's amigo Martin Short), portraying Cohen as a delightfully drippy nebbish. Most impressive is his knack for physical comedy, including a sublime gag in which Cohen tries (and fails) to close the door with an umbrella.

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