Reviewed by Will Stackman
Less well known than his associate Franz Wedekind, Carl Sternheim made his own contribution to German Expressionist theatre, one that is largely remembered for his "Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class" -- which uses traditional farce to critique the German bourgeois. Best known of this trilogy is "Die Hose", an ambiguous reference first translated into English as "The Bloomers", but since Eric Bentley's version of the '60s, usually referred to as "The Underpants." Steve Martin's more recent adaptation, commissioned for NYC's Classic Stage Company and having since played nationwide, concentrates on the central comic premise that an entire rigamarole of incident is set off when a young wife accidentally drops her drawers while attending a royal parade.
In the Martin adaptation, Sternheim's original, larger cast of associated characters is reduced to a minimum. The wife, naive Louise (Carol Lawton) is married to a stolid government clerk at least twenty years her senior Theobald Maske (Steven Barkhimer).
Having witnessed Louise's embarrassment, two men show up to rent the spare room in the Maske's apartment. The first is Frank Versati, a wealthy poet, (Lewis D. Wheeler). This extravagant charmer sweeps innocent Louise off her feet, proposing an illicit affair. As we learn early in the play, Theo hasn't made love to Louise since their wedding night a year ago, because he hasn't enough money saved up to afford to raise a child. That's why they're renting out the room. This vital information comes by way of gossip between Louise and her nosey neighbor, Gertrude (a wry Stephanie Clayman). The plot begins to boil when Theo returns from his constitutional, having rented the same room to Benjamin Cohen, a barber (Neil A. Casey). Cohen too has taken a shine to Louise, who's flattered, if a bit confused, by her new fame. Theo's practicality leads him to divide the room in two making Versati and Cohen roommates; and Theoĺ─˘s prudent Germanic sensibility makes him completely unaware of their interest in the wife for whom he has little romantic feeling. A third potential tenant, the scientist Klinglehoff (Robert Bonotto) shows up briefly in the first act, but becomes central to the play's increasingly absurd climax. Broader playing might have proved more laughable, but Barkhimer's almost whimsical approach to Theo's genial bombast sets the tone for the production, even if this version of the play isn't really about him, but rather his wife.
Martin has reduced the play to its farcical structure and managed to create appropriate characters, even though he's changed some of their names. What's only hinted at however is the philosophical bases from which Sternheim built the originals. Versati was ĺ─˙Scarronĺ─¨, a Nietzchian aristocrat, and ubermensch who considers himself above the rigid society in which Theo has found his niche. Cohen was ĺ─˙Mandelstam,ĺ─¨ less obviously Jewish, but still an outsider, who espoused social Darwinism between bouts of asthma. The resulting comedy is more entertaining than Sternheim's somewhat sour social critique, and the play ends with a bit of fantasy (as does Martin's first successful effort, "Picasso at the Lapine Agile").
Director Daniel Gidron has made good use of his experienced cast, letting each find physical expression for the comedy, more in the world of Feydeau than the darker reaches of Expressionism which began with "Wozeck" and exploded with Brecht. Gail Astrid Buckley has once again produced an excellent set of actable period costumes. Cristina Tedesco has created a elegantly simple design for Lyric's 3/4 stage, starting with a circular parquet floor with just enough furniture and a open background which doesn't dominate the acting area. Eleanor Moore's lighting once again fits the action, and the uncredited sound makes use of familiar Strauss and Wagner pieces which complement the play.
The Lyric, which has made a specialty of this form, has successfully mounted a entertaining farce with a fresh attitude.