There is so much to enjoy in The Underpants that it is hard to know where to start. Here we have a play spun around a totally absurd situation by a forgotten early 20th century European Jewish playwright, reworked by a well-known American comedian, and brought to us by a foreign troupe (Company B Belvoir, all the way from Sydney and it’s always interesting to compare the styles of major state theatre companies).
Since the underpants in question actually belong to Louise, I still haven’t worked out why the play wasn’t called Knickers or something more feminine instead, but maybe something was lost in the translation from the United States, or the original, by Carl Sternheim. And whatever they are called, their downfall is the catalyst for a gamut of emotions from panic and paranoia to sexual longings and wild, romantic love, beating in the hearts of a wacky assortment of characters revolving around the initial vapidity of the accidental knicker-dropper, Louise.
Under Neil Armfield’s direction, the first half of this production has everybody at a peak of manic hilarity which settles down, by the second act, into a formidable showcase for rewriter Steve Martin’s skills at producing rapid-fire bursts of witty dialogue. It is impossible, in fact, not to be conscious of the ghostly presence of Martin hovering in the wings, sparking speculations about which part he’ll play in the movie version. What he and Sternheim between them have done for the actors in this play is to provide each of them with their stellar moments in the radiance of the audience’s appreciative applause. John Batchelor as the blusteringly Germanic Theo comes on so strongly at the outset that it is difficult to see where he can go after that, but he skilfully winds himself back to fit into the rhythm of the remainder of the play, as the other men whose passions are aroused by the underpants beat a path to Louise’s door. Richard Sydenham has great fun with the effete and posturing poet Versati, which he offsets later with his dual role as the cooler King. And Damon Herriman is far too effective as the unctuous Cohen with a “K”. In fact, the racial stereotyping is initially quite unsettling, but made tenable by the fact that it represents the feelings of the times when the play was originally written, and as seen through a Jewish writer’s eyes. It is also worth noting that by the end of the play Sternheim/Martin have moved, thankfully without preaching or sacrificing humour, beyond the stereotypes to the sorts of personal relationships that people can form with each other.
And Rebecca Massey’s neighbouring busybody-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-a-body-filled-with-vicarious-lust, Gertrude, is right in there, intruding with her crazy accent and butt-to-die-for, to help Louise realise the golden opportunities that have come her way. As Louise, Lucy Taylor has perhaps the most difficult role, as the mousy, bespectacled housewife who suddenly becomes a sexual celebrity in everyone else’s eyes. In this role, her vapidity is perhaps a bit too effective, but she gets more into the spirit of the play as her character accelerates her switches between downtrodden and aroused, signalling her changes by the old-reliable of devices used by cinematic librarians since time immemorial: glasses in the on, or off, position. The other quiet role that gets into his spluttering stride in the second act is Kinglehoff, played by Keith Robinson.
The whole play takes place in the apartment of Theo and Louise, and a nice touch in the setting is the use of a working kitchen, where things smell and burn on stovetops, and sizzle under running tap water. All in all, this production works well on all levels; and the only quibble I have is that as part of a planned program of plays for the year it comes perhaps a bit too swiftly on the heels of the Queensland Theatre Company’s opening and not too dissimilarly excellent comic double, The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy. But presumably there are issues of timing when interweaving a production from another theatre company.
And if you love to laugh, you’ll be able to indulge yourself to the hilt at Underpants, with its rich fill of sight and sound gags.