By Sophie Yalkezian
Comedy legend Steve Martin found an everlasting truth in German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1910 farce, Die Hose, as he set out to adapt it nearly a century later in 2002. Judging by his resulting raucous comedy, The Underpants, he understood that the way we talk about gender and sex is forever evolving, each generation unintentionally serving comedic fodder to the next.
Given both the physical and sociopolitical distance between the play’s 1913 setting and our modern day, there was much to laugh about at Rensselaerville’s Conkling Hall when The Underpants was brought to life by R’ville Stage Creations.
The story centers on Dusseldorf couple Theo and Louise Maske, played by Pat Clark and Lily Lamoree, who have just returned home from a parade for the king where Louise’s bloomers scandalously fell to the ground. After Theo’s admonishment, a series of men arrive to claim the room for rent in their home: pretentious poet Frank Versati, played by Hudson Turon; timid barber Benjamin Cohen, played by Christopher Thorne; and later on, a grouchy scientist named Klingelhoff (Dennis Winslow). One by one, the renters find a way to confess their desire to Louise, who is at first scandalized but eventually, with support from nosy neighbor Gertrude (Jeanne Strausman), comes to relish the attention and attempts an affair that does not go according to plan.
A farce like this relies heavily on its physical comedy and the R’ville cast delivered. Clark’s huffing and puffing as the oafish Theo elicited many cackles, especially to archaically narrow-minded lines like “Only men can have affairs!”. Lamoree provided the show with an emotional center that both grounded Louise’s journey and complemented the over-the-top playfulness of the renters. Turon’s Versati made hilariously passionate pleas with arms outstretched as if his body was melting from within. Thorne’s Cohen allowed the audience to laugh off bigotry, as he convinced anti-semitic Theo that he was “Cohen with a K” and therefore, “a good German.” Scenes between Strausman and Lamoree were especially fun to watch as the two actors, decades apart in age, embodied the conspiratorial intimacy of a slumber party.
From local small business sponsors to enthusiastically costumed attendants, the entire production was a heartwarming example of how theater brings communities together. Intermission buzzed as the audience tucked into homemade cookies, popcorn, and scoops of Stewart’s ice cream. A nearby restaurant, The Tasting Lab, even got a shoutout for their sponsorship via the label on a prop bag of sugar. Details like this created a chemistry between the cast and their audience that was easy to feel and made up for small fumbles like the occasional awkward blocking or uneven delivery.
Only a play set in the early 1900s could make the mere appearance of women’s underwear into the stuff of scandal. The buffoonery of sexism brought on hearty laughs, while also showing us how far we’ve come.
That’s not to say we don’t still have far to go – what would this show be if Louise had meant to show her underwear and purposefully courted an affair from the start? At one point, Theo referred to his spouse as “a little housewife” and the audience gasped in response. Hopefully, perhaps with a little more time, that line will be as ludicrous as any other in this classic farce.