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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

Sunset Playhouse Finds Humor in Steve Martin’s ‘Underpants’

Theater Review

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Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants makes for agreeable social satire at the Sunset Playhouse. Michael Desper’s set comes together at pleasantly unexpected angles, and so does the cast.

The modest, early-20th-century residence of Theo and Louise Maske quickly becomes home to a range of archetypes in response to a minor scandal. Louise (Grace Liebenstein) is watching the king’s annual parade along the street when her underpants drop to her ankles, prompting all kinds of unwanted attention. Like so many of Martin’s scripts, the finer, more sophisticated humor relies heavily on delivery and context. Some cast members pull it off quite well, while others never quite get the hang of it. The resulting production is a pleasantly disorienting trip to the theater, with a thoroughly enjoyable script and some rather good performances.

Liebenstein holds down the center of the ensemble with poise, precision and strength. Not all of the attention Louise receives from the scandal is unwanted, and Liebenstein convincingly plays with the subtleties between being offended and being flattered. The comic end of her rapport works well with nearly everyone in the cast, most notably Nikki Lueck in the role of the upstairs neighbor living vicariously through Louise. Her character is given some of Martin’s most direct comedic lines, and she nails the delivery. Playing the conservative anchor against the wild events of the play is James Donaldson in the role of Louise’s husband, Theo. Much of the character’s humor lies in him being completely oblivious to his own absurdity. Donaldson’s success comes from the serious delivery of some very, very funny lines. Mark Neufang also puts in a performance of note as the breathlessly romantic poet Frank Versati, who hopes to woo Louise.

The Sunset Playhouse’s production of The Underpants runs through Oct. 3.