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Swept Away: Julia Dion gets a life from Jim Iorio in 'The Underpants.'

Early Bloomers

San Jose Rep shows off its 'Underpants'

By Marianne Messina

'THE UNDERPANTS,' now playing at the San Jose Repertory Theatre is a sort of German burlesque take on an Ibsenesque marriage (in case you miss the caged canary at center stage). In 1911 Germany, housewife Louise Maske (Julia Dion) has accidentally dropped her drawers during a parade, and suddenly, a stream of hopeful male boarders arrives at the Maske doorstep wanting to rent their spare room. As each of these men makes his play for Louise, under her husband's oblivious nose, actors freeze in poses familiar to silent-movie fans, and characters perform signature entry rituals--for example, the poet, Frank Versati (Jim Iorio), arrives with two flaps of his cape and a stomp of heels.

Carl Sternheim's original text (Die Hose) is adapted rather tamely by Steve Martin, and the sexual innuendo is so tired it yawns, perhaps the reason for the hyperbolic sexual pantomiming, which sometimes saves the text. What is frightening about the fact that this catatonic bawdry drew extensive laughter at a recent production is that it indicates some resonance between our current sexual climate and that of the hypocritically repressed era of the early 1900s. (Ya think?)

The play's stock stereotypes include Everett Quinton as the Jewish Benjamin Cohen ("That's with a K"), and Quinton plays the horny nebbish as a kind of Ferengi with man-boobs who transforms, when hotly pursuing Louise, into a filmic Dracula in the style of Bela Lugosi and Klaus Kinski. Meanwhile, Dion's Louise is the Sweet Polly Purebred every mustachioed villain wants to seize upon (more melodramatic poses) and ravish. To Dion's credit, her Louise is more textured than most of the other characters--a little plaintive, very patient, unflappable in the face of her husband's brutishness, and in her scenes with the poet, she oscillates nicely between sexually piqued and frustrated.

However, the award for best scene of sexual frustration has to go to Peggity Price as Gertrude Deuter. According to her own words, busybody neighbor Deuter is getting her thrills vicariously following the advances of Louise's suitors. In her rapture over the poet, Gertrude enacts what looks like a suppressed orgasm, the silent-movie version of Meg Ryan's famous performance in When Harry Met Sally. This is a great comedic moment, especially apropos for a time in history when vibrating a woman to orgasm was a medical treatment given in a doctor's office for hypertension and hysteria.

The play has its serious moments, especially around the Jews' place in an earlier German society. Every time Cohen lets slip some evidence of Jewishness, husband Theo Maske (Conan McCarty) does a double take, or shouts, "What was that?" and Cohen quickly revises himself. Director Jon Jory presents these brief confrontations as asides, sequestering Maske and Cohen from the others by a spotlight. In spilt-second eruptions, Maske grabs or faces Cohen down, and once Cohen goyifies himself, McCarty just as suddenly resumes his conversation in a normal tone. Given our retrospective knowledge, these tiny moments cause an effective dissonance in the humor.

At times, though, the character portrayals are baffling. McCarty with his tiresome shouting never seems to find Maske's center of gravity (is he an oafish animal of the common stock or is he the mindless, button-down machine cog?). To the extent that the idea of a cute, affable girl trapped in a house with two obnoxious stalkers and an abstemious tyrant can be funny, this is an amusing play.

The Underpants, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm (plus noon on June 30), Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no 7pm show on July 4) through July 18 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18-$52. (408.367.7255)

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From the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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