The Underpants by Steve Martin Adapted from Carl Sternheim – North Coast Repertory Theatre

Opening their season with an updated farce was a fine idea. North Coast Rep has been quietly producing quality stage productions for over 30 years, unobtrusively tucked into a corner of Solana Beach.  San Diegans and adventurous travelers from OC and LA have been delighted with the results.

Mark Pinter directs a perky cast of six. The original play, first mounted over a century ago, used German Expressionism to poke fun at the rigidity of that country’s sociopolitical culture. Martin, no slouch in the literary department, updated Sternheim’s work to reflect modern sensibilities, but still told through the prism of pre-WW1 Germany.

The play’s events are triggered right after the titular undergarments accidentally are exposed by Louise (Holly Rone), the wife of a mid-level bureaucrat. Her husband Theobald (Matthew Henerson) becomes apoplectic at the potential for repercussions to his civil servant position. Although no such risks emerge, challenges arise when several men become infatuated with Louise.  Cuckoldry and consternation are the result.

The Underpants - exposed at North Coast Rep through September 30

Henerson plays Theo with aplomb, all self-satisfied and assured in the primacy of the status quo. Rone is mostly faced with a reactionary character, but soon her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Clarinda Ross) convinces her to encourage a tryst with suitor / tenant Versati (Jacob Bruce). Louise then adopts a less-innocent approach, and becomes perplexed when Versati becomes more enamored of poetry than pulchritude. The other suitor, the nebbish Cohen (Omri Schein), aims to prevent the tryst, but soon becomes twisted in knots.  Finally, Klinglehoff (the sadly under-utilized veteran Jonathan McMurtry) appears as a foil to the other two tenants.

Pinter’s direction is crisp. Marty Burnett’s scenic design evokes 1910 Dusseldorf with raked angles and skewed corners, much like the art of German Expressionism that birthed the play. Martin’s adaptation includes several coy and self-referential segments (banjos and birds especially). Martin deftly makes timeless the issues of desire, control, jealousy, stereotypes and societal expectations.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.