News Column

Sarasota staging of Martin play succeeds

July 7, 2013

YellowBrix

July 07--'The Underpants' may not be as fast or funny as expected, but has charms

Expectations are dangerous, especially when it comes to anything having to do Steve Martin. He's written everything from silly comedy sketches to bittersweet romantic movies and intellectual, mildly avant-garde plays.

Still, when you're heading out to see a Martin-penned play called "The Underpants," and you know it's a farce, it's hard not to expect something fast-paced and wacky.

But that's not what it is, at least in the current production at Florida Studio Theatre.

In fact, through the first act, "The Underpants" is more like a sitcom than a farce. Martin's writing is smart, but the story and the style seem more akin to "Three's Company" than to Moliere.

The idea is that, just before the play opens, a beautiful young woman's panties have fallen down at a public gathering. It becomes a minor scandal in the town -- the play is set in Germany about 100 years ago -- that her cruel and stupid husband believes will ruin his life.

It also brings her the attention of two men who instantly fall in love with her and rent a spare room in her house to be near her. Since her husband gives her no attention or affection, the young woman is flattered by the interest the men show her, and even plans to have an affair with one of them.

Martin based his script on an old German play by Carl Sternheim. It's dotted with clever lines, many of them quite funny. Some may belong to Sternheim, but many of the best are obviously Martin's. (One character returns home and says he has just seen a Sternheim play. Someone asks him if it's any good, and he says to wait for it to be adapted.)

The first act is oddly slow-paced and marred by a hodgepodge of acting styles that work against each other. Gil Brady is broad and caricaturish as the husband, but Jennifer Joan Thompson, as the wife, is subdued and realistic. Mary Ann Conk, as a nosy neighbor, is vaudevillian, but not as over-the-top as Brady. It's obvious that these are fine actors who have chosen these approaches for their characters, but their performances don't mesh.

The second act is quicker and funnier, with more elements of true farce, and also a tiny injection of substance that's refreshing after 90 minutes of pure silliness.

The ending seems ambiguous. After the show, much of the conversation concerned exactly what had happened. It's hard to know whether Martin intended the ending to be unclear, but director Bruce Jordan certainly did.

There's plenty to like here, including the writing, most of the individual performances (by Thompson especially), evocative costumes by Sarah Bertoluzzi and a gorgeous set by Bob Phillips. Audiences have responded so enthusiastically that the show's run has been extended.

But people who go in expecting an enjoyable night of theater rather than a raucous Steve Martin comedy full of belly laughs will have advantage. "The Underpants" is more likely to make you smile than laugh.

It runs through Aug. 3 in the Keating Theatre at Florida Studio Theater, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets start at $32. Call 941-366-9000 or go to www.floridastudiotheatre.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow him on Twitter@martinclear.

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(c)2013 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)

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