As luck would have it, I caught Steve Martin’s new movie (Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and his new play (The Underpants) within the space of about three hours. The former finds Martin the actor in a goofy wig and thick glasses; the latter, Martin the playwright with his pants around his ankles. Must’ve been a riotous afternoon, no?

Well, not really. Though both vehicles show off the antic side of Martin’s comic personality, they don’t provide much of a window on the free-ranging imagination that’s kept the comedian interesting in the decades since his arrow-through-the-head stand-up days. When this guy is wedded to a concept that inspires him, he can really soar—witness his physical antics in the trapped-in-the-same-body movie All of Me or his mental gymnastics in the intellectual stage farce Picasso at the Lapin Agile. But when he’s not challenged, his work tends to be…well, workmanlike.

Adapting Carl Sternheim’s 1911 social farce, Die Hose, with its satirical swipes at bourgeois morality, would seem to offer Martin intriguing notions to play with. The plot centers on a wife who loses her knickers at a parade celebrating the kaiser. Her hubby, a pompous bureaucrat, is almost apoplectic at the thought of scandal—and, blinded by cash, he somehow fails to notice the lust in the eyes of the passionate poet and timid barber who show up shortly after the parade to inquire about the “Room for Rent” sign in the couple’s window. A neighboring spinster is soon engineering an affair between the wife and the poet, and the barber is scheming to prevent it. At which point a randy scientist shows up, and hijinks, as they say, ensue.

It’s worth noting that Sternheim’s writing—noted for its grotesque situations and offbeat, quasi-absurdist language—is credited with influencing German expressionism, and that Die Hose’s subject matter was considered so scandalous at the Berlin premiere that Max Reinhardt’s production was banned, with Sternheim subsequently leaving Germany to reside permanently in Brussels. That Martin’s adaptation is unremarkable in terms of language and tone—and entirely inoffensive—suggests that the adaptor hasn’t quite captured the essence of the piece.

That said, the Washington Stage Guild has mounted the play attractively, and Steven Carpenter’s characteristically brisk staging is blessed with a decently sharp cast of clowns. Michael Glenn’s swaggeringly ineffectual husband (he thinks women should leave home only for church, but hasn’t exactly been keeping his wife busy in the bedroom) has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get the play under way, and at the final preview Glenn was still pushing too hard for laughs. But Anne Bowles is innocently seductive as the wife who doesn’t realize she’s attractive until her unmentionables are mentioned. And Nigel Reed’s passionately impotent poet (when the wife cries, “Take me!” his response is “Yes, I’ll take you, and transform you into words”) and Chris Davenport’s mousy spoiler of a barber (“I, sir, am your prophylactic”) are well-matched and amusing.

No doubt you can hear Martin mouthing each of those lines as you read them—he’s brought his trademark comic style to adapting Sternheim. The new script (which will likely ride Martin’s name recognition to supplant Eric Bentley’s 1963 version, The Knickers) is conversational, actor-friendly, eminently playable, and entirely lacking in edge. Whether Martin has been faithful to the original, I’ll have to leave to scholars, but the mildness of the jokes in The Underpants is a definite comedown from the free-associating erudition that marked his mockery of artists’ affectations in the breakout Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Maybe artists are an easier lot for an art collector to take potshots at, but in an increasingly puritanical America, bourgeois morality would seem to present just as ripe a target. Would that his darts were sharper.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also provoked controversy when first produced, both on Broadway, where its vitriol thoroughly put off the 1963 Pulitzer committee, and on screen three years later, where it had to be released without a rating to avoid the X that the Motion Picture Association of America was threatening to bestow.

Albee’s play hasn’t lost its power to shock, though you might not always guess that from the Keegan Theatre’s ambitious, awkwardly cast revival at the Clark Street Playhouse. Lee Mikeska Gardner’s observant, intelligently conceived staging gets plenty right, but it ends up feeling oddly bloodless. George and Martha still have at each other with a liquor-fueled vengeance, Nick and Honey still get suckered into games of Get the Guest and Hump the Hostess, and the baby still figures prominently in the long Walpurgisnacht Albee has orchestrated for audiences. But as the drinks get tossed back and the insults get tossed around Faz Besharatian’s expansive, impressionistic setting, you may find yourself either tuning out the invective or asking yourself why Nick and Honey stick around to hear it to the bitter end.

Ordinarily, the answer has to do with Martha’s physical charms and George’s intellectual ones. On Clark Street, both are seriously muted. Linda High lands Martha’s caustic broadsides with boozy authority, and can bray with the best, but a seductress she’s not, and when she affects a coquettish manner to seduce Carlos Bustamante’s assertive, no-nonsense Nick, she’s not playing to her strengths. Mark Rhea has George’s tweediness and shuffling gait down pat, and there’s a huskiness to his voice that amplifies the man’s professorish ineffectuality. But he’s not throwing anything away—not even the little, under-his-breath repetitions George uses to buy himself time so he can compose his next zinger—with the result that his every line sounds italicized. Given all this surrounding forcefulness, it makes sense that Susan Marie Rhea’s initially passive Honey should eventually prove feisty, too, and she does—enough so that you half expect her to slug George rather than cower and whimper, which is what Albee requires her to do.

All of which doesn’t so much throw the play out of balance as make it less compelling—because if everyone’s strong, nothing’s really at risk. It also curdles the play’s comedy much earlier than usual. I’ve seen productions in which the entire first act and much of the second played as if written by Neil Simon, and only in Act 3 did the laughs start to catch in your throat. Here, the laughter is pretty much over by the first intermission, as would no doubt please critic Kenneth Tynan, who once noted that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? struck him as “too funny by half” for the destructive, acrimonious games Albee was playing. But to give up the humor without a compensating gain in anguish hardly seems a good bargain. CP

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