Theo Maske is a respectable man with a well-paying government job and he will not tolerate a scandal, most especially not a scandal involving his wife dropping her underpants in the middle of a crowd. However, rather than suffering the expected consequences of embarrassment and a sacking, the incident seems to work out in Herr Maske’s profitable favour.
Originally written by German playwright Carl Sternheim, Steve Martin’s adaptation of The Underpants leans heavily into sexual innuendo and outright crass humour to exacerbate the unfortunate passions Louise Maske’s (Gabrielle Scawthorn) underpants stimulated. Suddenly she is no longer a bullied little housewife but an icon of lust and desire for two different men who offer her exciting and unexpected escapes from her lacklustre husband (Duncan Fellows). As far as farces go, this one eschews nearly all other humour, though oddly maintaining a through-line about tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, for the straight-forward cuckold storyline and inserting as many euphemisms for penis as possible.
Of the two suitors, Louise and her nosy neighbour Frau Deuter (Beth Daly) are set on Italian poet Frank Versati (Ben Gerrard) for his romanticising ways. But sickly rival Herr Cohen (Robin Goldsworthy) makes it his mission to disrupt the coupling. Gerrard and Goldsworthy are committed to the exaggeration and humour of their characterisations as the extremes of hot and cold. A moment of particular satisfaction saw the two limply wrestle each other to the ground in slow silence. Daly also offered a well-controlled exuberance as she flung herself through doorways and pressed her ear to window panes for a quick eavesdrop. These three characters do well to capture the absurd good-humour of the production while also providing the forward momentum for the silly circumstances.
Overall, Anthony Gooley’s direction is a higgledy-piggledy mix of differing aesthetics and played-down physical humour that doesn’t carry the half-hearted script off into ludicrousness. Whether in the mismatched styling of Louise as a straight milk maid and Frau Deuter as a citizen fallen out of Whoville or the production design (Anna Gardiner) with early twentieth century realism placed inside a Valentine’s Day chocolate box, so many of the production’s elements are at odds with each other. Moments of hilarity, like Goldsworthy’s rendition of floppy physical humour in a classic sleeping drug gag, are made bittersweet by the disappointing light they cast on the other unsuccessful choices of the production.
The premise of The Underpants is a funny one with an appropriate flippancy that through a combination of unclear direction and a middling script fizzles out before reaching a gratifyingly rambunctious climax.
The Underpants is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from October 31st – November 23rd