If a woman blushed after her underwear fell down in public, Freud might say that it meant, deep down, that she actually enjoyed it. Take the housewife in Carl Sternheim’s early 20th century play, The Underpants: although she’s embarrassed after losing her bloomers while watching a royal parade, the experience ultimately unleashes her dormant passions. Filter this through the mind of Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin, who penned an adaptation in 2002) and you have the current production by The Gallery Players. Overall, the play comes off as quite charming, but this has more to do with the delightful cast than the script. With dialogue that often veers into shallow sitcom territory, some of the jokes are exhausting (if I listed every time a euphemism like “sausage” or “wiener” was used, I’d have no room to write a review). The ensemble, however, has a knack for infusing both their archetypal characters and the jokes with great timing and facial expressions.
The central couple, for instance, fits the classic blowhard-and-bored-damsel dynamic. Set in 1910 Germany, the show begins as Theo (Justin Herfel) is yelling at his wife, Louise (Catia Ojeda), about her wardrobe malfunction. He thinks it can only lead to ruin, starting with what he expects will be his immediate dismissal from his precious bureaucratic position. Herfel’s cranky beast act is a bit much at the outset, but he settles into it well, and even makes the entirely unsympathetic character enjoyable to watch.
Theo’s monetary concerns are assuaged when two men show up to rent their spare bedroom. While the guests are stark opposites – one, a romantic poet, the other, a mousy hypochondriac – they both witnessed Louise’s involuntary striptease and have developed a secret crush on her - so great a crush that they agree to share the small room.
Due to her husband’s complete lack of respect and passion, Louise welcomes the idea of an affair. As a result, the writer, Versati (Nat Cassidy), easily seduces her with his slick talk. Cassidy makes for a hilariously self-obsessed dreamer. His Versati is like the arrogant kid in your creative writing class that read all his work with a Shakespearean accent and flirted with whoever sat next to him. The pompous delivery never gets old (one favorite: when he doesn’t have a pen to write down a good line, he shrugs it off as “society’s loss”).
As Louise gradually starts to surrender to Versati’s ways, it’s enjoyable to watch Ojeda slide from reserved, polite housekeeper to passionate temptress (albeit an amusingly awkward one). The transition is realistically slow – a scene in which she attempts to be seductive is particularly funny – and Ojeda trades off well between serving as the straight man or comic relief.
The show works best when focusing on its own plot, rather than trying to attach it to the cultural moment. While the script is peppered with references to philosophy, poetry, and history, it doesn’t stay long enough on one subject to explore it in depth. As a result, the play becomes the sum of its one-liners.