by Michael Bowen

Jocks love the Three Stooges, stoners love Dazed and Confused, the French love Jerry Lewis: There's no accounting for taste. And then there's farce with a brain -- of which, thankfully, Steve Martin's The Underpants (at Interplayers through May 8) is one damn fine example.

Martin, that wild and crazy guy, has adapted a century-old German comedy with hilarious results. It's 1910, in Dusseldorf. A newlywed hausfrau has done much worse than reveal a little ankle: In stretching high to wave at the German king passing by, she has committed the unpardonable faux pas -- dare I say it? -- of allowing her underpants to come off, all the way to the ground, right there in public. Her husband, naturally, is scandalized -- and irate. The nosy old broad upstairs is titillated. Men are swarming to Herr Maske's apartment to see if they can rent a room -- anything to get another glimpse of something so divine as Frau Maske's tender inner thigh. And the little wifey herself is embarrassed, at first.

She gets over it. Getting over it, in fact -- getting past all the pious prudery -- seems to have been the goal of Carl Sternheim, author in 1911 of Die Hose, the play that Martin adapted. The proceedings, one might say, are rife with innuendo. Get Steve Martin to update those innuendoes, and who knows in whose hose -- and in whose -endoes -- the humor will be spilled.

Like any good farce, The Underpants indulges our sex-longing without going over the line: na & iuml;ve Louise (Caryn Hoaglund) gets to flirt with the idea of having illicit affairs without actually upsetting the apple cart of her marriage. The flower of German womanhood may be assailed by the forces of infidelity, but the invasion force of horndogs turn out to be not very good soldiers. Louise's would-be lovers are smug yet inexperienced, high-falutin' yet merely puppy dogs. Her husband Theo (David Seitz), may rattle his saber, but like all Dusseldorfers, he's slow getting it out of the scabbard.

This is a funny, exuberant show. The men are self-centered, faithless, unobservant, slow-witted and easily duped -- in other words, typical guys. Antisemites, sexists, prudes and know-it-alls are held up to ridicule. And The Underpants has just about the healthiest attitude toward sex of any recent play: not filthy, but not to be indulged in on a whim, either; something we all long for, but when it comes to a married person taking a lover, much better left as a wish than a fulfillment.

Hoaglund's at her best in the scenes when she expresses resentment at her husband, asking him at one point, "How would you like your wiener grilled?" and then dutifully, maliciously, following his instructions and slicing it "from tip to end." Soon after, Gertrude, the busybody upstairs (Kathie Doyle-Lipe) awakens in the young bride a hankerin' for some hanky-panky. Hoaglund is all breathless anticipation then -- and later, too, when she's seduced by a flamboyant poet, the verbally versatile Frank Versati. She pleads with the fop to take her, just before the flighty poet runs right into ... his room to write a sonnet. She's left, distraught, exposed for all to see in her nether lederhosen.

Sean Cook is Versati, who wants only to rent a room so he can be near his muse, the woman whose drawers fell to the sidewalk. (He wants to get really, really near to her.) With soul patch below the lip and black spit-curl plastered to his forehead, decked out in cutaway coat and spats, Cook resembles the figurine on top of a wedding cake, only gone mad with self-love and logorrhea. His entrances are always theatrical and twirling, and he proves himself a master of comic timing even when merely introducing himself: "Franklin, Angelo, 'The Cat,' Luigi, Versati the second. Sorry, the third." Cook's is one of the best comedic performances of the season.

This production features the ensemble of the year, too. These five men and two women are clearly having such a good time onstage that the joy becomes infectious. A vibrant packed house on opening night didn't hurt.

Take Seitz's Theo, the husband, for example: All strained smiles and short-clipped hair, constantly showing off his muscles and dispensing healthful advice -- smoking cigars, it turns out, is good for you -- he's a visual symbol of confusion and repression. Seitz nails the frozen-smile hyper-efficiency of the career bureaucrat. "I want to sleep with you," he says, by way of seduction. And then, cheerfully: "It won't take a minute."

John Hofland's set tilts windows and floors off-kilter, mocking how the German bourgeois prioritize what's proper over what's natural. Suspended sausage strings suggest that, in this show at least, pigs just might fly. There's even a mini-skyline: plenty of windows for peeping at the downfall of Frau Maske's undergarments and morals.

Director Braden Abraham and lighting designer Dan Heggem have combined for several wonderful moments of expressionistic lighting. Darkness slowly gathers as Theo grows paranoid about the approach of irrationality; lightning flashes when two lovers swoon in a kiss.

Abraham achieves the kind of drill-team precision that a door-slamming farce requires. But he doesn't allow his actors to fall into mere caricature: Nearly every one of them expresses more than just one trait.

Lisa Caryl's dirndl dresses cover both Hoaglund and Doyle-Lipe with quaint muslin respectability, concealing the geysers -- nay, the earthquakes, the volcanoes! -- of passion repressed deep within. (Considering their behavior later on, the lava must have been pretty close to the surface.)

Gertrude lives through the younger woman's sexual adventures because she assumes there remains no chance of having any of her own. Doyle-Lipe catches the gossip's silliness and tenderness. (Amazingly, this is the Spokane theater veteran's first appearance on the Interplayers stage.)

As Cohen, the smitten barber anxious to conceal his Jewish identity, Damon Abdallah whimpers, coughs, faints and rages, creating a character distinct from all the others he has played locally. As a flabbergasted old man, Ed Cornachio personifies Befuddlement. And when David Partovi appears as "A Late Arrival," watch for the raised eyebrows, the bushy mustache, the shiny buttons.

With its most enjoyable ensemble and largest cast of the season, Interplayers has produced Spokane's best show of the year.

Besides, with Kurt Vonnegut recently in town, don't you just feel like saying "underpants"? So go out, eat a breakfast of champions and enjoy this door-slamming show. ("Underpants!") And don't forget to slice your wiener lengthwise.

Publication date: 04/22/04

AAPI Heritage Day @ CenterPlace Regional Event Center

Sat., June 12, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.