Wardrobe Malfunction

The King has seen Louise's panties, and her husband is unhappy about it. Strange men begin turning up at Louise's door, hoping her drawers are still around her ankles. Hilarity ensues.

Sound familiar? If so, you're up on your obscure German playwrights of the early 20th century. But even those who haven't heard of Carl Sternheim (and who has?) will enjoy Steve Martin's adaptation of The Underpants, a farce with which Arizona Theatre Company is now enticing audiences who don't normally attend theater. It may be the title, or Martin's name, that's causing the stampede; either way, there's plenty of fun to be had once you're in your seat.

Sternheim's one-act has been translated before, as A Pair of Drawers and as The Unmentionables, but this time out it's pure Martin. Plopped crazily onto Robert A. Dahlstrom's wonderfully crooked set, which calls to mind a Ludwig Bemelmans sketch of Berlin, we don't actually see Louise lose her bloomers, which fall down as she's watching the Kaiser pass by in a parade. But we do see, in the eyes of the men who surround her, the passion and mayhem her 15 minutes of fame have caused -- all of it enacted in slapstick routines and raw, physical humor, and spoken of in Martin's quippy comic rhythms.

Where Sternheim was commenting on the bourgeois snobbery of the people of 1910 Düsseldorf, Martin is flat-out laughing at it. The women are oppressed by cowardly men, but they're also amoral and slutty; quick to betray their husbands for a quick fling. The Jew is a scaredy-cat, forced to obscure his identity (his name is Cohen -- "with a K!") in order to be close to Louise. The poet is unprincipled, foppish and self-absorbed; the husband a workhorse concerned only with the bottom line. They're all, as reimagined by Martin, wild and crazy punch lines come to life. Like the boarder, addressing the husband of his girlfriend about the room he's just rented: "I'll slip in and out without you knowing it." And the same fellow, while wooing Louise: "I want to sleep with you! It won't take a minute!"

The cast members are sublime, their timing so precise that, when one rowdy audience member blurted out Everett Quinton's next line before he did, he worked it into the scene without missing a beat. There's a bit wrapped around Louise's last line -- I won't reveal what it is -- that's awkward and, coming as it does in the final seconds before curtain, ill-timed. But this is director Jon Jory's single slip-up; elsewhere, he moves his players as if choreographing a graceful dance, and his athletic pacing fits Martin's remarkable physical comedy perfectly.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela