While the play isn’t what would technically be classified as Theater of the Absurd, it is the absurdity of its situation that makes “The Underpants” so entertaining.
Of course, the absurdity may go without saying, considering the silly, not-quite-racy title and the playwright’s name underneath it: Steve Martin. The pedigree becomes even more revealing by noting it is adapted from a 1910 play by the German Carl Sternheim, who was writing just as the Kaiser’s Germany was marching toward the Great War.
But before war, there are parades. As the play opens on American Repertory Theater’s intimate stage, our characters are returning from just such a regal display - only it was not the Kaiser that got everyone’s attention. It was Louise Maske’s bloomers. They fell down just as she stretched to see the king pass by.
Now middle-aged Theobald Maske (David C. Mitchell) is in a panic. Will his career survive the public undercover unveiling of his beautiful wife? Did people notice? Will there be a scandal?
The underwear dilemma wouldn’t be so worrisome if Louise, played with repressed flair by Candice Kogut, weren’t so much younger and more attractive that her work-obsessed husband. No one realizes that more than Theo.
“My job and your appearance don’t go together,” he explains when she tries to brush off the mishap. “You are too pretty for me.”
Although Louise believes she handled the situation as discreetly as possible, her comfort in that thought is quickly dashed. It appears that Twitter has nothing on 1910 Dusseldorf when it comes to spreading shocking news, since Louise’s neighbor Gertrude comes gushing in to say she heard about it at the train station.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Gertrude (Pamela Rose Mangus) says. The word is that the pantaloons were neat, clean and perfectly ironed.
Of course, the story is pure silliness, and that is how the fine cast plays it. Ben Caldwell and Rich Kraemer have a fine time playing rival boarders who rent out a room from Theo in order to be near Louise.
Caldwell plays Versati, a poet who lusts for Louise as inspiration. Kraemer is a closeted Jew who wants to protect Louise while also concealing his ethnicity at a time when it was politically prudent to spell his name, Cohen, with a “K.”
For Louise, this is a whole new world, one that is spinning on an entirely different plane than the one she shares with her inattentive husband, and one that almost turns her head. Suddenly she is an object of desire, even if she doesn't do the dishes, with temptation taking up lodging in her own spare room.
Director Jeffrey Coyle and the rest of the production team manage to fit a lot of doors and dramatic action into a small space, and even on opening night, the cast was in fine tune with what is a very busy show.
They take full charge of Martin's script, showing a good ear for his dry humor and the corny and clever jokes. Martin's dialogue is less nuanced, with all six characters (Michael Starzynski rounds out the cast) sounding a little like Steve Martin bouncing his lines off Alec Baldwin. But you certainly could do worse.
“The Underpants” is like a fun house ride that delights in wacky twists, shape-changing mirrors and the occasional jet of air to lift a skirt, all accented by ART’s well-chosen musical interludes taken right from die Hofbrauhaus. Hang onto your britches and enjoy.
3 stars (out of four)
A pair of accidentally dropped drawers leads to a saucy situation for a German civil servant and his pretty young wife in 1910 German in Steve Martin's take on Carl Sternhaim's "Die Hose." At American Repertory Theater of WNY, 330 Amherst St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through April 1. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 military veterans and students; $10 tickets on Thursdays. Visit artofwny.org.