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The Underpants

Steve Martin's sex comedy is messy but gets by on charm and exuberant performances

Louise learns to embrace her wardrobe malfunction in The Underpants. Photo credit: Tacoma Little Theatre

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In Dusseldorf, Germany, the year 1910, a young married woman experiences a wardrobe malfunction while watching a royal procession pass by. So begins The Underpants, a Steve Martin-penned adaptation of a century-old Carl Sternheim play being put up by Tacoma Little Theatre. As the play opens, the inciting incident is explained quickly, with Theo (Jed Slaughter) scolding his wife Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend) for having her underwear accidentally fall down in public - and in front of the king, no less. Louise tries to assure Theo that nobody saw what happened but, as The Underpants goes on, it becomes clear that everybody saw.

What follows is a bawdy sex comedy that flirts with examining women's rights and relationship dynamics, but never quite commits. Theo and Louise, needing to rent out a room to supplement their income, are approached by two men, both of whom saw Louise's underwear incident. First, we meet Versati (Ben Stahl), wealthy dandy who fancies himself a poet, and who wishes nothing more than to become Louise's lover. Meanwhile, a barber named Cohen (Andrew Fry) would also like to begin an affair with Louise, but ends up content with simply stopping Versati from getting any.

Deya Ozburn rounds out the main players as Gertrude, the nosy neighbor who would love for Louise to start a torrid affair, if only to live vicariously through her. Theo who spends the play blissfully unaware of anything untoward, happily antagonizes the audience with a torrent of retrograde sexism while everyone schemes behind his back.

Slaughter has excelled at playing pompous jerks before (Arcadia and 12 Angry Men, to name two performances I've seen), but he really gets to shine as Theo, receiving borderline boos from the audience and, after his umpteenth derisive comment about women, a legitimate exclamation of "Jesus Christ" from someone near the front row.

As the only four people who know what's going on, Fastabend, Fry, Ozburn, and Stahl all impress in different ways: Fastabend lends a remarkably expressive face and a bright, joyful energy; Fry lands some of the funnier lines with his hypochondriacal sadsack; Ozburn's nosy neighbor is instantly endearing; and Stahl delighted me once again with his ability to embody characters that are erudite and full of s@#*.

The Underpants is a comedy that really gets you rooting for the main character to cheat on her husband, which is nothing to scoff at. Still, it takes a little time to get you there. The first half of Act One is a little rough, thanks in no small part to Cohen's attempt to essentially blackmail Louise into having sex with him (a character trait that is rather abruptly dropped). But, after a little bit, Steve Martin's authorial voice begins to come through, and the farce moves in a progressively sillier and funnier direction.

It's an interesting choice to keep a live parakeet onstage for the whole play, as TLT's The Underpants does. The bird's random chirping adds an extra layer of chaos to an already somewhat messy play, its thematic importance overshadowed by its aesthetic value. Ultimately, though, The Underpants is charming and fleet enough to cover up most of the sketchy story beats.

The Underpants, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Oct. 2, $20-$24, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281,

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