Brief encounter 

Alliance drops drawers for Steve Martin's The Underpants

In his old routine "What I Believe," Steve Martin declared, "I believe you should place a woman up on a pedestal -- just high enough so you can look up her dress." In The Underpants at the Alliance Theatre, Martin converts that one-liner into a full-length play. Sort of.

The celebrated comedian, movie star and author adapts Carl Sternheim's 1911 comedy, which tweaks bourgeois values and discovers that virtually all men -- whether bureaucrats, poets or scientists -- transform into slobbering fools by a glimpse of frilly underthings. Aaron Posner directs a cheerful, at times gossamer-thin production of a likable work that nevertheless feels like an undersized script for the Alliance Main Stage.

In 1910 Dusseldorf, Germany, young hausfrau Louise (Elizabeth Wells Berkes) attends a parade to honor the kaiser and, for a handful of lucky witnesses, causes an even greater sensation. Without warning, her panties slip to her ankles, a fashion faux pas with far-reaching repercussions. Her stuffed-shirt husband, Theo (Jeff Portell), can only think about possible scandal and how it could affect his career as a faceless functionary.

When Theo and Louise seek to rent out their spare room, the couple find themselves petitioned by potential boarders. The would-be occupants turn out to be drawn by Louise's presence, the errant underwear having transformed her, in their eyes, from an ordinary, modest young woman to a pulse-racing sex symbol. It's like they've discovered a room to let at Bettie Page's house.

The Underpants turns on a premise that's at once obsolete and relevant. Such a minor example of dropped drawers could easily have caused a stir in an era when "showing ankle" meant flirtatious exhibitionism. With such mystique surrounding women's bodies, underwear's ability to eroticize would be immeasurable. Standards differ greatly a century later, with straps of thongs routinely peeping over the waistbands of low-riding pants and lingerie practically unavoidable in show windows, catalogs and TV commercials. But while practically nothing remains left to the imagination, that little bit of nothing can still cast a powerful spell.

The first of Louise's admirers is smoldering poet Versati (Ariel Shafir), a dashing, passionate swain whose costume evokes Groucho Marx and Salvador Dali. Shafir's performance gives The Underpants its comedic fireworks; even his most innocuous line drips with seduction, and he can dash over the furniture like a would-be swashbuckler. (Shafir may be nodding a little to the rubber-bodied "wild and crazy guys" of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd.)

Nebbishy barber Benjamin Cohen (Todd Weeks) proves equally besotted with Louise, but he'll settle for thwarting Versati's romantic efforts. Weeks proves funniest when Benjamin unconvincingly denies his Jewishness in a running joke with dark implications for Germany's Nazi future. Weeks, like several of the others in the supporting roles, at times seems to be playing the exaggerated comic tics more than the character.

Berkes makes Louise extremely appealing and provides The Underpants with much of its charm. She comes across not so much as an airhead but as an innocent, a little reminiscent of Gracie Allen. When her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Lori Larsen) points out the lack of romance in her marriage to Theo, Louise considers having an affair with Versati, and Berkes' vulnerability softens the moral implications of adultery. The underwear incident not only encourages Louise's own sexual awakening, it inspires Gertrude to seek pleasure as well. (The play's feminist implications link The Underpants to the Alliance's previous show, Intimate Apparel, which also concerned undergarments but with more serious themes.)

Kris Stone's set harks back to an age before the sexual liberation -- I have no idea if it's period authentic, but it could easily be a 1950s domestic showroom or situation comedy set in Middle America. The skyline beyond the rooms provides an exception, as the tops of buildings amusingly resemble cuckoo clocks.

As the voice of boorish, middle-class chauvinism, Portell's Theo initially comes across as a heavy-handed caricature, inflating his chest like a bullfrog and moving his arms at right angles. Theo becomes more archetypal, and Portell's performance more subtle, as the play goes along. When Theo and Versati engage in a lighthearted debate over the nature of masculinity, The Underpants reveals more substance than you might expect and turns into more than a one-joke play. OK, it may be just a three-joke play, but at least they're three pretty good jokes.

The Underpants raises questions about Martin's abilities as a dramatist. In the 1970s, he commanded a status like the Elvis of stand-up comedy, but switched to films and increasingly emphasizes safe crowd-pleasers like Cheaper by the Dozen 2. He clearly sees theater as an outlet for his artistic ambitions, but The Underpants, like his hit Picasso at the Lapine Agile, features witty lines but lacks dramatic momentum, and the low-key charms of his L.A. Story and Bowfinger scripts are more satisfying.

Martin alternates between lame double entendres about wieners and some genuinely sparkling wordplay: "He's here under false pretenses!" "How can pretenses be otherwise?" If The Underpants suffers from false endings and a tendency to add too many characters when the action flags, it still features enough good lines and funny performances to give an underwear-based show the support it needs.

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