Tacoma Little Theatre opens its 98th season with a frothy bit of silliness called “The Underpants” from the multi-talented Steve Martin, renowned comic, actor, writer and musician who wrote the brilliant “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” It is hard to believe that Martin wrote this one.
At best, it is good for a few laughs. There is some entertaining word play, it pokes fun at sexist attitudes that were prevalent when the play is set, in the first decade of the 20th century — attitudes that in some quarters still exist today. It is also mildly risqué and would have been even more so in 1910.
Louise Maske (Cassie Jo Fastabend) accidentally drops her underpants — frilly bloomers that reveal nothing — while watching a parade just as the king happens to be passing by. They drop to her ankles from underneath a long dress, and she quickly picks them up and hides them, but not before half the men in Germany get a glimpse of the titillating undergarments, or so it seems from the resultant reactions.
Her husband, Theo (Jed Slaughter), is horrified. A conservative government clerk, Theo is afraid he will be fired from his job because of his wife’s indiscretion. But other men who witnessed the incident are consumed with a fierce lust for her. It just so happens the Maskes have advertised a room for rent in their home, and two of the men who witnessed the dropping of the drawers immediately show up to rent the room, just so they can be close to Louise. Theo, who apparently cares for nothing so much as money, divides the one room into two in order to get twice the rent, and both men agree to the absurd proposition. The men are Frank Versati (Ben Stahl), a romantic poet, and Benjamin Cohen (Andrew Fry), a barber who insists Cohen is spelled with a K — a not-so-funny dig at anti-Semitism in 1910 Germany.
Stirring the caldron of lustful silliness, Louise seems to be ripe for an affair, and she is infatuated with Versati, who would rather write poems about making love than actually doing it. Further stirring that caldron is Louise’s lusty upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Deuter (Deya Ozburn), who encourages Louise to go for it.
The setup, which is ludicrous and improbable, has great comic potential and is just the kind of thing you might expect from Martin, but he does nothing with it. The fault is not with the director, Jennifer York, or with the lead actors, who throw themselves into their roles with wild abandon, but with the writer.
The set, designed by Blake R. York with gorgeous scenic painting by York and Erin Chanfrau, is a wonderful kitchen of the Maske home with Victorian-era flourishes, and the costumes by Michele Graves are outstanding.
Fastabend, Ozburn and Slaughter are outstanding. Slaughter’s portrayal of the stuffy and pompous Theo is underplayed in comparison with the broad, farcical acting of the other characters. Ozburn hams it to high heaven with a portrayal of Gertrude that calls to mind both Katharine Hepburn and Madeline Kahn, either of whom I could easily see in the role. And Fastabend is a loveable and hilarious Louise –– quite possibly the best acting I’ve seen from her to date. She not only chews up the scenery, and I mean that in a good way, but she also chews up the many men who come into her life.
Also appearing are Dale Bowers as a scientist named Klinglehoff and Bob Lozier as “The Distinguished Caller,” both characters who serve no real purpose in the story.
It’s a funny play, but far from Martin’s best efforts. The cast does the best that can be expected given the script they have to work with.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 2.
Where: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $20-$24, pay what you can Sept. 29.
Information: 253-272-2281, tacomalittletheatre.com.