A Passion for Panties
There are few sure things in theater, as in life, but a sex comedy from funnyman Steve Martin performed by a first-rate cast should be one of them. Sad to say, The Underpants, now in production at the Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables, is something of a disappointment. Martin's adaptation of a 1910 German satire by Carl Sternheim has to do with a fussy bureaucrat and his attractive wife, who accidentally drops her drawers while watching a parade, attracting the amorous intentions of several men. This premise has lots of promise, and the array of hard-working comedic talent -- headed by veteran farceur John Felix -- is formidable indeed. But while the production gets airborne at several hilarious moments, it never stays aloft for long.
Sternheim's original script must have had quite an impact in its day. Theo Maske, the flustered bureaucrat, is a prudish authoritarian who refuses to have sex with his wife because, he says, they can't afford children. But Louise is hot to trot, and she's easily swept off her feet when a womanizing poet, Frank Versati, drops by their flat, inquiring about a room to rent. It seems Versati witnessed Louise's sudden divestment at the parade and was instantly smitten, so much so that he intends to move in and secretly make love to her. Louise responds, but they are thwarted by the arrival of another suitor, Benjamin Cohen, a barber who also witnessed Louise's accident and is jealous of Versati's ardor. Cohen also wants to move in, prompting eager Theo to rent the room to both of the would-be paramours. This is a dandy setup for some wild romantic high jinks and some thematic points about feminine autonomy and conventional prejudices. Despite its potential, though, The Underpants is at heart a sentimental comedy, and domestic normalcy ensues, not wild complications. Martin's contributions seem to be limited to punching up the jokes, especially ones having to do with bodily functions. Mostly, though, Martin adds his name. It's unlikely that this long-forgotten script would ever have found its way to the Playhouse stage without the celebrity hype.
As Theo, Felix is effective, finding laughs in the slightest physical gesture. Claire Tyler, playing Louise, does well in her trademark role as a wide-eyed sex kitten. Michael H. Small, as the needy, jealous Cohen, Lisa Morgan as a scheming neighbor, and Peter Haig as an officious would-be tenant are all versatile and play this conventional comedy with flair. But it's Paul Tei as Versati who finds the stylistic sweet spot that kicks the production into gear on his first entrance. Tei brings a poker-faced earnestness and a gleeful physical grace, swooping around the stage like an Apache dancer. To this he adds a sly, ironic modernity that gives the show a real boost -- certainly the whole thing starts to take off whenever he's on stage.
These individual efforts aren't matched by much passion from the production staff, however, except for Mary Lynne Izzo's stylish period costuming. David Arisco's direction is competent but wholly lacking in point of view. This tactic seems to work for the Playhouse's revivals of classic musicals, which cleave closely to the original Broadway stagings. But The Underpants needs vision and inspiration to help it along. Gene Seyffer's depressingly realistic set, an ordinary apartment featuring really ugly wallpaper, doesn't help, nor does the ponderous Wagner on the soundtrack. Actors Playhouse usually tries to stay away from "the vision thing," opting for bankable commercial projects, but this production is a quick course in showbiz reality. Even surefire hits require passion, commitment and -- ulp! -- risk.
If your taste in theater tends toward light musical fare, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is serving up a tasty show, Cookin' at the Cookery -- The Music and Lives of Alberta Hunter. Lives is the operative word in the story of this popular blues singer, whose career stretched from the 1920s to the 1980s. Hunter went through more than a few major stages -- as a wannabe child singer in Memphis, then a struggling cabaret chanteuse in Chicago and New York, on to fame in Paris and London, and back to New York. When her career took a dive, she turned to nursing as a profession for 20 years before coming out of retirement in her 80s to play the Cookery in New York. All of this biography is, of course, an excuse to get to the music, a rich range of well loved blues and jazz tunes.
Cookin' offers a pleasant way to kill a couple of hours by way of some terrific musicianship and a talented cast of two. Ernestine Jackson, a double Tony Award nominee, and her equally talented cohort, Janice Lorraine, play all the roles, sharing the role of Alberta as well as her mother, co-workers, friends, and employers. Both are formidable entertainers. Jackson's rich, commanding, singing voice and stately stage presence is balanced by Lorraine's comedic athleticism and a remarkable gift for mimicry: She's equally adept at playing Alberta as a young girl, a Jewish club manager in his 70s, and, in one perfect piece of channeling, Louis Armstrong. To this add writer/director/choreographer's Marion J. Caffey's stylish staging and a terrific on-stage quartet led by Darryl G. Ivey and Cookin' really starts to bubble when the music kicks in.
However, if you're looking for cuisine with some substance, this Cookin' may not fill the bill. Caffey's script never finds much drama or consequence in his subject's life. Hunter's story is played up in linear detail. Caffey may be enthralled by Alberta's story, but most of it really isn't particularly striking or unusual. She tries to get work at a club. She tries again. She tries to get work at another club. Then she gets work. Hurray! Time for a song. The plot line does touch on several dramatic aspects of Alberta's life -- sexual abuse, her sudden realization of her homosexuality, and her mother's death. All are compelling but touched on for all of 30 seconds.
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