Comedy is hard. I’m certain this was true when Carl Sternheim originally wrote Die Hose (The Underpants) in 1910 in Germany. This satire on the mores of the bourgeoisie was actually presented under the title Der Riese (The Giant) because the Berlin police found the original title, referring to women’s underthings, too offensive. But when it was performed, I’m imagining the laughs were hit and miss.
When Barry Edelstein, artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company, approached Steve Martin to write a modern adaptation of the play, the thought “comedy is hard” probably occurred to that wild-and-crazy-guy as well. Because even after shifting focus away from mocking the middle class to the fleeting nature of fame, it’s hard to make the premise of wayward panties seem scandalous. And even after Martin added a self-referential line about banjo music, several enormous pairs of women’s bloomers and plenty of innuendo concerning sausages, it’s hard to make the play seem funny.
So that was the challenge presented to UW-Madison’s Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre when they opened The Underpants in the Mitchell Theatre (running through April 30) — the actors, along with director Scott Cummins, had to find the comedy. And though the blocking is frequently clever and the underpants are indeed silky, pink and impressively adorned, they don’t infuse the play with many laughs.
The story begins in turn of the century Germany with Theo (Kyle Wessel) storming into his flat after his young wife Louise (Kerry Billings) has embarrassed him to the point of mortification. While watching a parade for the king, Louise stood on her tiptoes on a park bench to get a better view of the monarch. As she strained for a look, her underpants unexpectedly fell around her ankles. Shocked, she picked them up and hid them under her shawl hoping no one noticed except her brutish husband, who believes the gaffe will get him fired from his government post. Louise tries to laugh it off and attend to her housewifely duties in hope of ever pleasing her scolding schoolmaster of a spouse. But it turns out that not only did others notice, the whole town is now talking about the scandalous sight, which excites two prospective boarders to no end. A self-absorbed poet (Nate Jones) and a gawky barber (Samir Idrissi) both rush to sign leases to rent a room in the house, whipped into a lustful frenzy by glimpsing Louise’s underthings.
The result? Theo is pleased with all the extra income. Louise is (momentarily) pleased by all the extra attention. Their nosy neighbor Gertrude (Caitlin Rowe) is thrilled that she can live vicariously through Louise’s dalliances with the new boarders. The poet is distracted by his own glorious writing and the barber sulks jealously, while insisting to everyone that he’s absolutely not Jewish. Doors slam, trysts are attempted and skirts are lifted, but very little hilarity ensues. A rushed deus ex machina ending doesn’t land because there isn’t time to take it in. To make up for holes in the script and lack of character development the cast simply recites their lines at a very high volume, some gesticulating wildly. And although assistant director and dramaturg Lydia Berggruen suggests that Louise finds empowerment and freedom through this experience, that transformation was not evident on stage.
Which leaves audiences with little more than the axiom, comedy is hard.