The Underpants is a genuine crowd-pleaser.
The opening-night crowd clapped between every scene and roared with laughter at many of the punchlines in Perseverance Theatre’s newest play. That sometimes meant a completely necessary laugh break in the quick-moving farce that is a Steve Martin update of a 1910s German comedy.
Many of the shows biggest laughs came from the comic timing and interplay of a small cast that seemed to be having a great time committing to physical comedy and working with material that riffs on both Descartes and farts.
“The Underpants” tracks the aftermath of an offstage and incidental act of public indecency committed by German housewife Louise, played by Kelly Gibson, when her underpants fall off during a royal parade.
Soon poet Frank Versati, played with lascivious loquaciousness by Ben Brown, and the nebbish Jewish barber Benjamin Cohen, played by Evan Rothfeld, are drawn to Louise’s house to ostensibly rent a room, but also to attempt to woo the demure Louise.
The overtures are somewhat welcome for a variety of reasons. Louise is essentially seen as a pretty appliance by her husband, Theo, played by Aaron T. Moore, who is both boorish and grandiloquent to some great effect.
“You’re much too attractive for a man in my position,” says the civil servant Theo upon realizing his wife’s accident may draw attention.
At another point, he helpfully chimes, “Mention my name, God likes me,” to Louise as she departs for church.
Louise’s inclination for infidelity is spurred on by upstairs neighbor Gertrude, played by Shadow Meienberg. Gertrude is basically The Nurse from “Romeo and Juliet” turned up to 11. I’m not sure if she has a line that isn’t an entendre, or explicitly randy.
While all the personalities are giant, somehow they make the most sense when sharing a stage.
Gertrude and Louise plotting like a perverse Lucy and Ethel is a joy even if it can be tough to work out their motivation. Louise is clearly delighted to be desired and to have a shakeup from her housebound routine, but it seems like that routine is also a shelter and source of comfort. It’s not really clear what Gertrude’s stake in the game is beyond wanton voyeurism, but Meienberg sells her carnal character, and a 20th century farce is going to work by its own logic.
The men played by Brown, Moore and Rothfeld are each terrible in their own ways that turn delightful when the trio ping pong jokes off of each other. A pontificating poet, a jealous Nice Guy and a dyed-in-the-wool German bureaucrat are a much more winning combo than one would think.
The dueling suitors with enormous and numerous quirks give off a real “There’s Something About Mary” vibe, and if the Farrelly Brothers hit a comedic sweet spot for you, this raunchy pun-laden production is going to work for you.
That’s an endorsement and a warning.
While, there’s an awful lot to like about “The Underpants,” the gender politics are definitely from the time the original work was written and even with the relatively recent rewrite, a lot of its views aren’t much further along than the hose hound jokes in “Dumb and Dumber.” There are some moments of empowerment, but it’s always clear who ultimately wears the pants and who wears the underpants.
Broad jokes about men insisting they know what women should do with their bodies was a little discordant this week in particular, but that’s something that’s really beyond the control of anyone onstage. Still, it’s a bit of a fleeting thought because of the overwhelming joy in the theater.
It’s tough to be sullen or a punchline pundit when a turn of phrase is guaranteed every 15 seconds and the whole rest of the room is laughing.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.