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Review: 'The Underpants' is funny in places, a little skimpy overall

Greg Thompson, Nicole Jeannine Smith and Derrick Phillips perform in Jobsite Theater's production of Steve Martin's The Underpants. Photo by Pritchard Photography.

Greg Thompson, Nicole Jeannine Smith and Derrick Phillips perform in Jobsite Theater's production of Steve Martin's The Underpants. Photo by Pritchard Photography.

TAMPA — A poet bulldozes his way into a couple's modest home, pretending to need lodging. Around the same time, the woman's husband is renting the same room to a barber, who like the poet, has appeared out of nowhere.

This conflict propels The Underpants, a Steve Martin adaptation of the 1910 play Die Hose with which Jobsite Theater opens its season. The question is why these men want so badly to split shifts in a German civil servant's drab quarters — enough to split shifts, each paying for a half day.

The answer is Louise, the Kim Kardashian of the moment. The day before, she was waving at the king in a parade when her underpants fell to her ankles. She discreetly stepped out of the long hosiery and swept them under her shawl. But people in the crowd had noticed, even the press.

It is easy to see why Martin would want to resuscitate the play by Carl Sternheim, who satirized middle class sensibilities. The comedian's fingerprints are visible in the hammy double entendres sprinkled throughout. The effort, directed by Karla Hartley, is commendable. Farce is difficult enough to pull off; a farce with substance is probably harder still. The result here is a worthwhile piece of theater that is not exactly engaging. It touches on serious topics, notably repressed sexuality and the highs and lows of temporary fame. But it is essentially one joke, strung out over 90 minutes.

It opens with Theo, Louise's bureaucrat husband, confronting her about her indecency. Derrick Phillips, as Theo, hits this hard, almost scampering around the house at something just short of a run.

Then the Red Bull wears off, and Phillips does a creditable job playing an incurious member of the bourgeoise. In one of the play's finest moments, he leads a prolonged discussion about why only men should be permitted to have affairs.

The production does make clear what happens when human drives are forcibly tamped down. The poet Versati, played with a humorous seriousness by Greg Thompson, is more smitten with his own verse than by the object of his desire. Benjamin Cohen, played by the versatile Jamie Jones, hides the fact that he is Jewish in transparent ways. Jonelle Meyer goes for broke and with every farcelike exaggeration as the nosy neighbor, Gertrude, who is swept off her feet by multiple characters.

The sweet spot in the play and the production is Louise, the only remotely normal character. Nicole Jeannine Smith imbues Louise with a touching innocence that drives home a key message. When the hubbub around her dies down, she returns to the life she knew before, as a "little housewife" as enslaved as the parakeet in a cage, who warbles from time to time.

Hugh Timoney rounds out the cast as the embodiment of stuffy German morality. The set by Brian Smallheer, from the antique refrigerator with legs to the depressing beige walls, illustrates lives lived as a succession of joyless routines. All of this combined effort produces a show that tries to be both funny and substantive, but is not quite enough of either.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

. If you go

The Underpants

The show runs through Oct. 2 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $28. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

Review: 'The Underpants' is funny in places, a little skimpy overall 09/13/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 12:22pm]
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