The Underpants at Jobsite: Better without them

These underpants have been in mothballs too long.

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If acting and directing alone could salvage a sinking script, the show would be impeccable.

I can only imagine that Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants was a daring, even shocking hit when it was first produced in 1910 Germany. After all, the play revolved around a titillating mishap — the public moment when a well-dressed woman’s underthings fell noticeably to her ankles — and its satire of the German middle class must have seemed unusually intrepid.

Unfortunately — or, mostly, fortunately — we’re a lot more sexually open in 2016, and we’ve seen so many attacks on the bourgeoisie in the intervening years (everything from Sinclair Lewis to Bertolt Brecht to Monty Python), it’s hardly refreshing to see another, cruder version from yesteryear. Which is a long way of saying that comedian Steve Martin’s adaptation of the Sternheim play is pre-adolescent in its sex comedy, tepid in its social criticism, and (worst crime of all) not very funny. In the time of internet porn and Anthony Weiner’s sexting, this “classic” reeks of mothballs. Only a very young or very old audience could possibly find it provocative.

Still, those talented folks at Jobsite Theater do everything possible to make this creaking hull seaworthy. If acting and directing alone could salvage a sinking script, the show would be impeccable. Led by the shamelessly inventive Jamie Jones, the cast is near-perfect, and Karla Hartley’s direction is faultlessly energetic. Brian Smallheer’s living room set may be dreary, but Katrina Stevenson’s period costumes are sharply imagined. In fact, the Jobsite production is so crisp and professional, it takes a few extra moments to realize that the play it’s bringing to life is usually tedious. Age isn’t the problem — no one finds Sophocles and Shakespeare out of date. The problem is a snickering, outmoded approach to sexuality, and a too-tame critique of bourgeois behavior. To change metaphors in midstream, this is a horse-and-buggy racing against the latest Formula One car. What’s most noticeable is the dust.

Here’s the plot: a young married woman named Louise (the charming Nicole Jeannine Smith) is at a royal parade (royal as in Kaiser Wilhelm) when her underpants somehow fall to earth. Though she snatches them up, her husband Theo (the delightful Derrick Phillips) is livid, sure that he’ll be punished somehow for this lèse majesté. But the descent of the undies has a different effect: it brings to Louise and Theo’s home two men who have seen the embarrassment and are entranced: Jewish barber Benjamin Cohen (Jones) and poet Versati (the admirably precise Greg Thompson). Versati wants to have sex with Louise (almost as much as he wants to write poems), but Cohen, when not trying to disguise his Judaism (this is 1910 Germany), sees himself as the young woman’s protector. Louise isn’t against a dalliance with Versati — her conjugal life with Theo has been disappointing — but she’ll have to get around both Cohen and her husband if she’s to make it happen. Encouraging her is upstairs neighbor Gertrude (the skillful Jonelle Meyer), who not only pushes for adultery but offers to design a new and mesmerizing pair of panties for her friend. Slightly complicating matters is another man, the prudish Klinglehoff (impressive Hugh Timoney) who, like Cohen and Versati, wants to rent a room in Louise and Theo’s home. There are a lot of double-entendres along with some up-to-date crotch-grabbing, and the question of who’ll mate with whom creates a modicum of suspense. As for genuine eroticism, you’ll find more on the Self cover at the supermarket. Unless, of course, you’re 12 years old — or 100.

I left The Underpants feeling bad not only about the play but about theater in general. I couldn’t think of anything even remotely as old-fashioned on TV or in the movies, and I had to wonder what it is about the stage that lends itself to such anachronisms. Then I remembered the show I reviewed last week — Good People at American Stage — and my mood revived. David Lindsay-Abaire’s play is about a woman with a sexual history quite as complicated as any adult’s today, and features a look at class antagonisms far more incisive than anything in The Underpants. I thought of other locally-produced plays that treated on sex, like freeFall’s wonderful Spring Awakening or Stageworks’ Venus in Fur. The stage isn’t necessarily backward: There are lots of plays that speak to us right now, and without a wink and giggle.

So kudos to Jobsite for lavishing so much love and work on Steve Martin’s version of Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants. But to return to my first metaphor, some ships just aren’t seaworthy — no matter the captain or crew. This one should have stayed in dry dock.

The Underpants

Two of five stars

Jobsite Theater at the Straz, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa

Through Oct. 2. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. $28

813-229-STAR. jobsitetheatre.org.     

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