The Underpants Fall, but Timber Lake's "The Underpants" Doesn’t Print
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 19 July 2005 18:00
If there’s one theatrical axiom I’ve subscribed to over the years – both as a performer and as an audience member – it’s this: If anything is going to go wrong with a production, it’ll go wrong on opening night. (Things also tend to go wrong when the show is being videotaped or ... ahem ... when a critic is in the audience, but that’s a whole ’nother story.)

At the Timber Lake Playhouse’s opening-night performance of Steve Martin’s comedy The Underpants, there was a snafu or two (or a few): The scene-capping blackouts came a few beats late, leaving the actors looking stranded; the body mic on a principal performer generated a tinny, distracting echo – he appeared to be speaking from two places at once; a fog machine appeared to be functioning far better off stage than on; and the cast members experienced some major difficulties keeping the set’s doors closed. (By Act II, this was practically a running gag – “There goes that door again!” I heard an audience member murmur, none too quietly.)

As a performer, it would be nearly impossible not to be shaken by all this, and on opening night, you could occasionally see the flop sweat forming on the actors’ brows. But subsequent audiences for Timber Lake’s The Underpants shouldn’t sweat it in the least; the script is so funny, and the production itself is so vibrantly acted, that all the accidental misfires in the world wouldn’t curdle its appeal.

Not having read the 1910 farce upon which Martin’s adaptation is based – it concerns the hullabaloo that arises after Louise, a proper German housewife, accidentally drops trou in front of the king – I’m in no position to say which lines are directly translated from Carl Sternheim’s original text. But there’s no denying Martin’s off-kilter, cerebral wit; as in the author’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the best lines here sneak up on you and knock you sideways, and it often takes a few beats to register just how funny the dialogue is. (A favorite moment: The hypochondriacal boarder Cohen imploring, “Do you know how painful it is to have no feeling?”) Though the script features too many sniggering double entendres that go for cheap laughs – there are several obvious references to the cooking of wieners and the lead’s “rusty pipes” and such – they’re a small price to pay; Martin’s verbally adroit wordplay is dizzyingly enjoyable. (“I’m a nitwit?! You don’t have a wit to nit with!”)

The script is populated by a series of fops, blowhards, and eccentrics, and this Underpants presents audiences with as ripe a comedic ensemble as one could hope for. As Louise’s husband – the sort of self-infatuated boor who says, upon his wife leaving for church, “Mention my name. God likes me.” – Clay Sanderson is exquisitely obtuse, and he’s matched in comic chutzpah by Matthew Callahan, playing a hysterically florid poet, and Justin Sample, whose line readings as the twitchy, exasperated Cohen are continually surprising – funny little noises keep popping out of him. Erin Anderson is joyously engaging as Louise’s gossipy neighbor, and while Jeffrey Binney isn’t exactly convincing as an elderly man, he’s pretty damned funny, and that’s more important.

Surrounded by comically outré performers such as these, Victoria Watson is blessedly real, and beautifully focused. Her line readings have a playfulness that’s intoxicating, and she elicits enormous audience empathy throughout the piece; it’s the rare, graceful actor who leaves you praying that her character will pursue an affair. Watson and her co-stars, benefiting from director Linda Gillum’s inspired staging – I loved the farcical use of the Ottoman on wheels! – would make The Underpants a treat no matter the tech glitches; Timber Lake could be producing the show in a driveway right now and leave audiences absolutely delighted.

For tickets or more information, call (815)244-2035 or visit (http://www.timberlakeplayhouse.org).
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