“The Underpants” is billed as an adaptation, not a translation, of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1911 comedy “Die Hose,” so it comes as no surprise that its deadpan tone and its mix of highbrow references and lowbrow gags seems very typical of the guy who did the adapting (in 2002): Steve Martin.
When one character says, for instance, “It was Descartes who said that we exist,” another responds, “Someone had to say that?” And when a different character says she just saw a Sternheim play, and is asked if it’s worth seeing, she responds, “wait for the adaptation.” Yet Martin is not above making naughty little double-entendre jokes about the weiners his characters eat.
The Company Theatre Group is currently presenting “The Underpants,” at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center, and it’s a must see for any Northern New Jersey Martin fan who hasn’t yet had an opportunity to see it. This play isn’t often considered to be one of Martin’s greatest accomplishments, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s slyly funny from beginning to end, and the cast of seven, here, embraces its absurdity with gusto while delivering its lines with sharp comic timing.
The action starts with a scandalous incident. Louise Maske (played by Bailey Shada) has accidentally shown her underwear in public, at a parade, and all of Dusseldorf seems to have noticed. Her husband Theo — a government clerk who also happens to be a chauvinistic, racist jerk — is afraid he’ll lose his job because of the indiscretion.
The Maskes have a room to rent, and two men arrive, hoping to move in. Frank Versati (James Van Nostrand) is a handsome but pretentious poet; Benjamin Cohen (Sean Evans), a barber with health problems. Both, we quickly learn, got a glimpse of Louise’s underpants, and are mad with desire.
Klingelhoff (Teddy Coluca, who also co-directs the play with Lou Scarpati), a grumpy old scientist, also shows up, wanting the room. It’s unclear, at first, if he, too, is interested in Louise.
Sweet, innocent Louise is attracted to Versati, and shares her interest with her friend and neighbor Gertrude (Andrea Prendamano), who is thrilled at the prospect of living vicariously through Louise’s affair. But Theo invites both Versati and Cohen to share the room, and they do so, with Cohen trying to block the affair from being consummated.
There are some serious aspects to the play. Only in an unnaturally repressed, uptight society — the play is set in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1910 — would the underwear incident unleash such mayhem. Theo is the epitome of that society, and his eagerness to blindly, unthinkingly embrace cultural norms is one of the prime targets of Martin’s ridicule. His anti-Semitism is also mocked though the Cohen character, who is obviously Jewish but effortlessly hides it from the dense Theo by telling him, for instance, that his last name is spelled with a K and not a C.
But for the most part, Martin is just interested in ridiculousness, for ridiculousness’ sake, and the play’s most outlandish characters are the ones who get the biggest laughs: Versati, with his over-the-top preening; Gertrude, with her blunt, brash nosiness; and Klingelhoff, with his frowning, unapologetic harshness to everyone around him.
The Company Theatre Group presents “The Underpants” at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center through May 6; visit theatrecompany.biz.