The Box opens season with 'The Underpants'

By Donald V. Calamia

Jeremy Strehendt and Bryan Braun enjoy the view in Steve Martin's "The Underpants." Photo: The Box Theatre

Imagine you're an anonymous, low-level bureaucrat in 1910 Germany whose sole fear is to be discovered by his superiors and promoted. And then imagine how horrified you'd be if your beautiful wife accidentally had her bloomers fall down around her ankles while out in public at a parade honoring your boss - the king - at the exact moment he was passing by! You'd likely panic. Did the king see it, you'd wonder? Did anyone ELSE see the incident? And what will it do to my career and reputation?

That's the premise behind comedian Steve Martin's "The Underpants," a 1992 adaptation of the German farce "Die Hose" by Carl Sternheim now at The Box Theatre in Downtown Mt. Clemens.

But more important to the story is what the drawer-dropping incident revealed to Theo Maske's wife, Louise (Leah Ruff).

Theo (Sal Rubino), a stern taskmaster, rules his household and his wife with the same cold practicality and efficiency one would expect of a bureaucrat. And although the two have been married for a day or two short of a year, they've had sex only on their wedding night. Why? Because Theo doesn't believe they can afford a family right now - which explains why the couple has a sign in their window offering a room to rent.

It doesn't take long after Louise's public display for potential suitors to come a-courting - under the pretense of renting the room, of course. And once she discovers the truth behind their intentions, the frustrated, mistreated and unappreciated young woman considers having an affair with one of her gentleman callers, the unpublished and smooth-talking poet Frank Versati (Jeremy Strehendt).

But complications arise - among other things, of course. And the question changes from WHEN will she do it to IF she will.

Martin's script, as you might expect, is filled with witty dialogue, oddball characters and plenty of double entendres, all effectively used to explore gender roles, class distinctions, sex, anti-Semitism and fame. It's a comedy of manners and a sex farce rolled into one, the result of which should be a night of silly fun.

However, that's far more true of director Bill Beaudry's second half of the opening night performance than its first. Choppy line delivery by an unsure-of-himself Rubino slowed the first act pace and disrupted some of the interplay between and among the characters. As a result, many of the laughs that SHOULD have been generated were lost. A steadier and more confident Rubino appeared in the second act, though, which allowed him and his onstage partners to have much more fun with their characters and line delivery.

Ruff, on the other hand, was always on fire as his put-upon (and much younger) wife. Her sweet face always revealed her character's inner thoughts, and her scenes with Strehendt - especially the seduction scene - were especially well played.

In fact, Ruff and Strehendt - and Beth Duey as neighbor Gertrude Deuter - were the performance's most consistent and enjoyable players. But oddly enough, the night's biggest laugh came from the actor who spent the least amount of time on stage. Anthony Bianchi's departure after the king's initial visit - adding a 21st-century swagger to his formal, royal stature - was thoroughly unexpected and totally delightful.

The costumes by Jamie Rivard serve the show well. But slow or very late light cues contributed to the show's uneven pace.

REVIEW:

'The Underpants'

The Box Theatre, 70 Macomb Place, Mt. Clemens. Friday-Saturday through Sept. 25, plus Sundays Sept. 12 & 19 and Thursday, Sept. 16. $16. 586-954-2311.

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