Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Monday, October 30, 2006

New info on an old play - The Underpants

The Underpants has been staged around the world and now is in Britain. This article has some info that I haven't seen anywhere else.

The Times (London)
October 21, 2006, Saturday
FEATURES; The Knowledge; Pg. 20
Hmm, smells like a hit to me
Dominic Maxwell

As the comedy The Underpants opens, Dominic Maxwell has a brief encounter

Steve Martin's Underpants went down well in New York and Los Angeles. Down Under, though, it has become one of the highest-grossing plays in Australian history, even if the people in New Zealand angered him by messing around with the contents.

And now The Underpants -Martin's adaptation of a 1911 play by Carl Sternheim, which in previous translations has traded under names such as Knickers, The Trousers and The Giant, although Germans are most likely to know it as Die Hose - has finally made it to Britain. As befits the Off-Off-Broadway beginnings of a play commissioned in 2001 by the Classic Stage Company in East Village, New York, this satirical farce is about to open in a 60-seat pub theatre, the Old Red Lion.

Well, at least the adapter doesn't need the cash.

"I like the theatre because of the writing," Martin told The New York Times while promoting the first production in 2002. "There's a certain freedom as a writer to be tangential. A great passage in a play can be literate, can be beautiful, can be off-topic, can be so many things. A great line in a movie is usually 'Come on, let's go'."

Martin has written for the theatre before -he's currently working on a film of his 1993 play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, as well as several shorter pieces. He also has some previous as an adapter -rejigging Cyrano de Bergerac for his film Roxanne, Silas Marner for A Simple Twist of Fate. And while his recent big screen run suggests a desire to top up that modern art collection more than to tap in to the comic genius that gave us The Man With Two Brains and Bowfinger, the collected writing in his book Pure Drivel is a reminder of his peerless comic mind.

For Richard Braine, the new production's director, though, it was Sternheim first, Martin second. In Britain, Braine is best known for playing Gussie Fink Nottle opposite Fry and Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster, or as one of the nation's foremost sitcom vicars. In Germany he's the face of Dinkel-Mini, a snack that attained a profitable notoriety after, on take 49 of Braine's first TV commercial for the product, his female co-star bit into her 49th Dinkel-Mini of the day and projectile vomited 6ft across the room. The outtake was a hit on the German version of It'll Be Alright on the Night and Braine found himself making regular trips to Germany to film follow-up ads.

He'd seen some Sternheim plays out there and liked them enormously. But when he came home and read the existing English translations, he saw why a man who was one of the most performed playwrights in the world early last century was rarely staged in Britain. He mentioned this to Stephen Fry, who told him that Steve Martin had just done a translation. He saw his chance. And although at first the National Theatre beat him to acquiring the rights, earlier this year they decided not to stage the play. Braine could take Steve Martin -or is it Carl Sternheim? - to the Fringe.

"There are so many wonderful instances of Steve's wit alongside Sternheim," he says. "But I had a conversation with Steve about it, and although he spent about three months on his version, he insists that most of the good gags are already there in the original."

The play is set in 1910 Dusseldorf. Louise, the attractive but sexually starved young wife of a petty bureaucrat, drops her knickers as the Kaiser passes by one day. This is enough to win the affection of three passing men who become the couple's dodgy lodgers. But while in a saucy French farce nookie might abound, here the repressive husband ends up the champion.

The original was widely taken as a satire on the bourgeoisie. In adapting the show, though, Martin not only addressed the questionable depiction of the Jewish lodger Cohen, he also made it less a satire on bourgeois morality, more a dig at gender politics and a culture fixated on fame. "I don't see the bourgeoisie as a threat," Martin explained, "that's like something we did in the Sixties to be critical of 'the squares'. The bourgeoisie is us, it's both left and right."

For all of Martin's silver-haired seriousness -Braine confirms that, like many comic greats, Martin doesn't try to be funny in conversation -his name has led some casts to overdo it. "It is a romp, it is non-stop," says Braine, "but Steve said of one of the American productions that it was like watching six Steve Martins on stage."

Two of the Old Red Lion's shows this year have already transferred to the West End (Rabbit and The Vegemite Tales). If Braine's production moves on, he admits it will be his only chance of making any money from the show. It could also be the only chance of our seeing Steve Martin in the West End. But only if he sticks to the script: Braine says that when a New Zealand production did well and wanted to transfer to a bigger theatre, Martin refused them permission because they'd changed his ending. "He went absolutely bonkers about it." When the Sydney production was a success, though, Martin flew down to see the show, and apparently spent the next week riding around the city on a bicycle. Whatever debt he owes to Sternheim, he clearly feels as if he wears the underpants in this relationship.

"I did a bit of work on this play, so I'm proud to have my name on it," he told the New York Post on opening night in 2002. "Let's put it this way: I don't feel like I'm robbing the playwright."

The Underpants at the Old Red Lion, London EC1 (www. 020 7837 7816), from Tuesday


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