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Bloomer Humor Works On Stage

Steve Martin's "Underpants" adaptation gets lots of laughs.

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Scene from "The Underpants."

That "wild and crazy guy," Steve Martin, first made a name for himself as a comedian, but in 1993 he penned an original comedy for the stage which was a hit. That play was "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." Almost a decade later, he tried his hand at adapting an existing comedy, an early twentieth-century German farce about a civil servant who fears disaster when his wife's drawers descend in public.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria is mounting a very funny production of this comic morsel. Under the direction of Eddie Schwartz, all of the six member cast deliver lines with energy and clarity and find just the right timing to make most of the punch lines evoke real laughter.

The play is "The Underpants," an adaptation of a 1910 farce by Carl Sternheim, whose works were satirical farces holding contemporary values up to ridicule. The play was banned when it was first written probably because of its political views as much as for its supposed indecency. Add a condemnation of sexism as the male civil servant expects subservience from his wife, and there is a very modern feel to the piece.

Part of the reason for that modern feel must be the work of Martin. He doesn't update the story to a more recent time - Germany is still under the Kaiser - and he doesn't sprinkle today's slang into yesterday's speeches. But he does use a vocabulary that falls easily on contemporary ears and makes sure that there are only references that today's audiences will understand with ease.

There's plenty of humor to go around in this story. A staid, stuck up and largely insufferable minor civil servant (played with ramrod straight posture by James Chandler) is contrasted with his at first subservient wife of one year who, by the end of the play, has come out of her shell and come to believe in her own worth. She's played with a progressive sense of assertiveness mixed with a great deal of charm by Claudia Love Petty.

The salary of minor bureaucrats being what it was (and still is, for that matter) the couple has to let out a room in their apartment to make ends meet. With the notoriety her undergarment mishap creates, they have two applicants for their room and the husband decides to subdivide the small room and rent to both. They are a barber and a poet. Marcus Dunn is the poet, waxing eloquent over the attraction of his hostess. Mario Font is the barber who has to hide his Jewishness in the Germany of 1910 by asserting that his name is Kohen, "with a K" and not Cohen despite the tzitzit fringes coming out below his proper business coat.

Marianne Meyers is an upstairs neighbor who befriends the wife. In this apartment building, not only the walls but the ceilings and floors are so thin she can hear every word spoken in their home.

The one act comedy calls out for quick pacing and a brand of acting that, in a more subtle play, would be seen as over-acting. Director Schwartz keeps the cast from succumbing to the temptation to under-play. As a result, there are plenty of laughs to fill an hour and a half. It is ninety minutes well spent.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com> www.PotomacStages.com</a>). He can be reached at <a href=mailto:Brad@Potomacstages.com> Brad@Potomacstages.com</a></i>