There are few sure things in theater, as in life, but a sex comedy from funnyman Steve Martin performed by a first-rate cast should be one of those. Sad to say, The Underpants, now in production at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, is something of a disappointment. Martin's adaptation of a 1910 German satire by Carl Sternheim has to do with a fussy bureaucrat and his pretty wife, who accidentally drops her drawers while watching a parade, attracting the amorous intentions of several men. This premise has lots of promise, and the array of hard-working comedic talent -- headed by veteran farceur John Felix -- is formidable indeed. But while the production gets airborne at several hilarious moments, it never stays aloft for long.
Sternheim's original script must have had quite an impact in its day. Theo Maske, the flustered bureaucrat, is a prudish authoritarian who refuses to have sex with his wife because, he says, they can't afford children. But Louise is hot to trot, and she's easily swept off her feet when a womanizing poet, Frank Versati, drops by their flat, inquiring about a room to rent. It seems Versati witnessed Louise's sudden divestment at the parade and was instantly smitten, so much so that he intends to move in and secretly make love to her. Louise responds, but they are thwarted by the arrival of another suitor, Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish barber who also witnessed Louise's accident. Cohen wants to move in, too, prompting eager Theo to rent the room to both of the would-be paramours. This is a dandy setup for some wild romantic hijinks and some thematic points about feminine autonomy and conventional prejudices. Despite its potential, though, The Underpants is at heart a sentimental comedy, and domestic normalcy ensues, not wild complications. Martin's contributions seem to be limited to punching up the jokes, especially those having to do with bodily functions. Mostly, though, Martin adds his name. It's unlikely that this long-forgotten script would ever have found its way to the stage without the celebrity hype.
As Theo, Felix is decidedly effective, finding laughs in the slightest physical gesture. Claire Tyler, playing Louise, does well in her trademark role as wide-eyed sex kitten. Michael H. Small as the needy, jealous Cohen; Lisa Morgan as a scheming neighbor; and Peter Haig as an officious would-be tenant are all versatile and play this conventional comedy with flair. But it's Paul Tei as Versati who finds the stylistic sweet spot that kicks the production into gear on his first entrance. Tei brings a poker-faced earnestness and a gleeful physical grace, swooping around the stage like an Apache dancer. To this he adds a sly, ironic modernity that gives the show a real boost -- certainly the whole thing works whenever he's onstage.
These individual efforts aren't matched by much passion from the production staff, however, except for Mary Lynne Izzo's stylish period costuming. David Arisco's direction is competent but wholly lacking in point of view. This tactic seems to work for the playhouse's revivals of classic musicals, which cleave closely to the original Broadway stagings. But The Underpants needs vision and inspiration to help it along. Gene Seyffer's depressingly realistic set, an ordinary apartment featuring ugly wallpaper, doesn't help, nor does the ponderous Wagner on the soundtrack. Actors' Playhouse usually tries to stay away from "the vision thing," opting for bankable commercial projects, but this production is a quick course in show biz reality. Even surefire hits require passion, commitment, and -- ulp! -- risk.
If your taste in theater tends toward light musical fare, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is serving up a tasty show, Cookin' at the Cookery -- The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter. Times is the operative word in the story of this popular blues singer, whose career stretched from the 1920s to the 1980s. Hunter went through more than a few major stages -- as a wannabe child singer in Memphis, then a struggling cabaret chanteuse in Chicago and New York, on to fame in Paris and London, and back to New York. When her career took a dive, she turned to nursing as a profession for twenty years before coming out of retirement in her eighties to play the Cookery in New York. All of this biography is, of course, an excuse to get to the music, a rich range of well-loved blues and jazz tunes; the theater has used this strategy in a number of small-cast shows about twentieth-century entertainers, including last season's Jolson & Company.
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Like these, Cookin' offers a pleasant way to kill a couple of hours by way of some terrific musicianship and a talented cast of two. Ernestine Jackson, a double Tony Award nominee, and her equally talented cohort, Janice Lorraine, play all the roles, sharing that of Hunter as well as her mother, co-workers, friends, and employers. Both are formidable entertainers. Jackson's rich, commanding singing voice and stately stage presence are balanced by Lorraine's comedic athleticism and a remarkable gift for mimicry: She's equally adept at playing Hunter as a young girl, a Jewish club manager in his seventies, and, in one perfect piece of channeling, Louis Armstrong. To this add writer/director/choreographer Marion J. Caffey's stylish staging and a terrific onstage quartet led by Darryl G. Ivey -- Cookin' really starts to bubble when the music kicks in. That's been the ticket for several productions of this show, which have played theaters across the country.
If you're looking for cuisine with some substance, however, this Cookin' may not fill the bill. Caffey's script never finds much drama or consequence in his subject's story. It's shown in linear form, which after a while feels something similar to being cornered at a party by a drunk who insists on telling you the story of his life. Caffey may be enthralled by Hunter's tale, but most of it isn't particularly striking or unusual. She tries to get work at a club. She tries again. She tries to get work at another club. Then she gets work. Hurray! Time for a song. The plot does touch on several dramatic aspects of her life -- sexual abuse, her sudden realization of her homosexuality, and her mother's death. All are compelling, but focused on for about 30 seconds. Had Caffey really explored his subject's long, complex relationship with her mother -- who always found excuses to avoid seeing her daughter perform -- and her decision to switch to nursing once her mother died, this show might really be about something.
Written by Carl Sternheim; adapted by Steve Martin. Directed by David Arisco. With John Felix, Peter Haig, Lisa Morgan, Michael H. Small, Paul Tei, Claire Tyler, and Carl Waisanen. Presented through June 13 by the Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org
Cookin at the Cookery
Written, directed, and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey. With Ernestine Jackson and Janice Lorraine. Presented through June 13 by the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-4000 or www.cgplayhouse.org