Jenny Leona

What Fools These Players Be

Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hartford Stage

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has much to delight. With three stories that dovetail into one, the play offers at the heart of each story comic elements that have kept audiences entertained for generations. In one story, four Athenian youths—Hermia (Jenny Leona), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet)—are caught up in a love triangle, overruled by Hermia’s father Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) in a dispute brought to the attention of King Theseus (Esau Pritchett). Meanwhile in the forest, the fairy rulers Oberon (Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are sparring over who should get custody of a changeling child. And a troupe of Athenian workmen, rehearsing in the forest, are putting together a play for the nuptials of Theseus and his bride Hippolyta (Strallen). Mistaken identity, love potions, metamorphosis, fits of jealousy, and ham-fisted theatrics combine to make the play a celebration of the different worlds theater can manifest.

Last year at Hartford Stage, director Darko Tresnjak gave us a silly, effervescent Comedy of Errors and seems determined to do the same with Midsummer. The problem, though, is that the latter play doesn’t lend itself as well to over-the-top hamming. That doesn’t mean the game cast doesn’t do all it can to provide belly laughs at almost every turn, but somewhere amidst all the preening and posturing, the pointing hands and waving arms, the crotch-grabbing and air-humping, the lampoons of American method actors by a showboat Bottom (John Lavelle) and the gauche ardors of lovers in school uniforms, a wise, witty, and sumptuously lyrical text goes missing.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That might not matter to everyone, and there is method in the director’s decision to rein in the set while unleashing the actors. This strategy gives us an English country estate, particularly its gatehouse, for Athens, complete with an ordered park as environs. When Lysander and Hermia, supposedly at large in the wilds, lie a little further off amidst trim hedges and park benches, something seems awry. It’s that kind of disjunction that may keep a viewer waiting for a moment when something like the playwright’s vision might occur. One supposes it’s to be found in an obscene prop that accompanies Brent Bateman’s eager turn as Snout as Wall.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Theseus, as everyone knows, is kind of a killjoy. Here, I found myself taking his side. It helps that Esau Pritchett gives the king much dignity, though he doesn’t seem much different when he becomes Oberon, but for his very becoming tunic. As Hippolyta, Scarlett Strallen looks good in a riding habit, with dark hair, and as Titania, she’s a begowned blonde who has the intonation to make the verse, and sometimes song as well, come alive. Her doting upon the “translated” Bottom is quite the set-piece it’s meant to be and the attendant fairy-maids (Melody Atkinson, Gabrielle Filloux, Anne O’Sullivan, Madison Vice) may be commended for actually downplaying what are often flamboyant parts, though the notion of an otherworldly fairy realm is lessened to nothingness. The lack of feyness in the fairy world is compounded by Will Apicella’s vigorous Puck, the least beguiling version I’ve ever seen.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

One imagines the lovers would fare better if differently presented. In their school uniforms, they look immature and, suitably, act petulant rather than passionate. That tone, once established, helps to make their plight comic from the first, and then it’s just a matter of who will run farthest with it. I would single out Fedna Laure Jacquet for highest praise—as Helena, petulance suits her, and since she’s able to fawn like a dog and coquette like an awkward doll, she inspires the most laughter. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius get in some fun as boyish rivals à la “Our Gang,” while Jenny Leona makes Hermia’s turn at jealousy very vivid.

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Vivid too are those mechanicals, with John Lavelle as a Bottom whose well of mugging and vocal mannerisms hath no bottom, abetted by Matthew Macca as a lollipop-licking Flute. The point of the play within a play seems to be to show that, once upon a stage, a player will strut for all he can.

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

The critic G. K. Chesterton is quoted in the playbill as proclaiming that “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.” By “design,” he means of course what we would mean by structure, the way the different worlds of the play impinge on one another to create a world in which magic—whether of love, fairies, or inspired clods—triumphs. Hartford Stage’s production gets demerits for design, as an unusually static take on this fluid play. Its failings help to show how much a play may be the creature of its appearance. The supreme merit this production aims for, and sometimes hits, is a merit of display.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Projection Design: Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Composer & Music Director: Alexander Sovronsky; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Will Apicella, Melody Atkinson, Brent Bateman, Robert Hannon Davis, Gabrielle Filloux, Fedna Laure Jacquet, John Lavelle, Jenny Leona, Matthew Macca, Anne O’Sullivan, Tom Pecinka, Esau Pritchett, Alexander Sovronsky, Scarlett Strallen, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Louis Tucci, Madison Vice

Hartford Stage
September 7-October 8, 2017

An Old Sweet Song

Review of And a Nightingale Sang at Westport Country Playhouse

C.P. Taylor’s memory play And a Nightingale Sang, running through June 27 at Westport Country Playhouse, gives us Helen Stott (an incandescent Brenda Meaney), looking back at life in Newcastle, England, during WWII and at her family’s experience of day-to-day existence under the Blitz. From her first words, Meaney establishes a presence of such frankness, poignancy, and strength that we are willing to follow her wherever she might lead. Meaney's acting belongs in the highest ranks. For her performance alone, And a Nightingale Sang is worth seeing.

Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)
Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)

The device of Helen’s direct address adds a pleasingly modern dimension to Taylor’s well-made drama. As the narrator, one moment Helen is introducing characters, the next she is explaining the subtext, and then for a time she melts into the action. Leisurely-paced and short on surprises, Nightingale is most powerful when Helen—whose limp has kept her (in her view) a spinster—tells her own coming-of-age story, which took place in her early middle years. David Kennedy’s direction, however, falls short of conveying the terrors of war, and thus this production slants a bit too far towards the comfortable and the bittersweet.

The opening scene serves mainly to establish characters and introduce the working-class Stott family. Pretty younger daughter Joyce (Jenny Leona) is trying to decide whether to accept the marriage proposal of Eric (John Skelley), a soldier who is about to ship off to France; Joyce’s mother, Peggy (Deirdre Madigan), is desperately trying to get out of the house to visit one of the priests who, she fears, is having a war-related crisis of faith. Meanwhile Peggy’s father, Andie (Richard Kline), has just lost his beloved dog (whose dead body he has brought into the house in a cloth sack) and is trying to round up funeral goers. In the background, George (Sean Cullen), the father of the family, plays merrily on the piano and provides a humorous commentary on the cacophonous events. We immediately see that everyone in the family depends upon Helen for her good sense, kindness, and alacrity with a cup of tea. The war first intervenes at this point, in the form of sirens signaling a possible attack.

Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline
Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline

Because Helen’s memory drives the plot, the strongest storyline revolves around her love affair with Eric’s soldier friend Norman (Matthew Greer), the only man who has ever looked at her, much less declared his attraction and affection. Some of the sweetest moments occur here, as well as some of the play’s few genuine revelations. Greer is appealing, touching, and appropriately mysterious, while Helen’s emotional and sexual awakening brings to mind a more emotionally stable Laura, of The Glass Menagerie, if the Gentleman Caller had fallen for her and in doing so, changed her life.

Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)
Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)

In the Stott household, humor, whether intentional or not, often pierces the darkness of the war, and Kennedy and his cast play up this element with crisp expertise. Indeed, these remarkable actors lift the script beyond its own limitations. Every performance shines. Sean Cullen brings a boyish twinkle to George Stott and sings and plays the piano as if he were born at the keyboard. As Peggy, Deirdre Madigan captures the conventionality of a staunch Catholic of her time and then layers this with unexpected nuance. Jenny Leona brings both fragility and fire to the role of Joyce. And Richard Kline, as Andie, delivers his fatalistic pronouncements, honed on the battle fields of WWI, with dry wit, while also conveying the vulnerability of a man who has come to love his pets as much as his family: Tibby the cat reminds him that he is still needed.

As the soldier, Eric, John Skelley keeps us on his side even when his behavior is at its most churlish. Eric—one minute a fun-loving guy, the next minute a lout— is a tricky role, but Skelley, under Kennedy’s guidance, helps us to see a youth made by war to act the adult before he is ready.

Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)
Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)

The scenic design, by Kristen Robinson, and the lighting design, by Matthew Richards, are to be commended too. The set is a large brick open space that serves most often as the Stott’s home, but that also remains abstract—like memory—so that two chairs brought downstage can become a park bench or a front parlor, and the characters can move through the central open space and enter a dance hall or a hotel or a homely flat. Richards’ lighting serves to create the effect of memory: when the spotlight isolates and illuminates Helen, we know we are in her mind, and when the light broadens, we know we are back in the scenes of the past.

With such a strong design team—including sound design by Fitz Patton—one only wishes that Kennedy had chosen to make the moments when war breaks into the Stotts’ domestic concerns more jolting, terrifying, and real. Sirens should be louder, bombs should shake the theater walls, and flashing lights should blind. However, the terrific cast nearly makes up for this missing dramatic element: they bring to the stage their own brilliance, in all senses of the word.

And a Nightingale Sang
By C.P Taylor

Directed by David Kennedy

Cast: George: Sean Cullen; Norman: Matthew Greer; Andie: Richard Kline; Joyce: Jenny Leona; Peggy: Deirdre Madigan; Helen: Brenda Meaney; Eric: John Skelley

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Michael Krass; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Props Master: Karin White; Choreographers: Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Marcie A. Friedman; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Flint

Westport Country Playhouse
June 9-27, 2015

On the Town

Review of Our Town at Long Wharf Theatre

A lasting impression made by the current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Wharf is the sheer size of the cast. With 21 speaking roles fleshed-out with at least 13 local extras, Edelstein marshals crowd scenes that indeed look like a town. This Our Town is based on the ideal of community as people who share a location and a way of life, such as those who have sustained the Long Wharf Theatre for 50 years in the same location.

As the Stage Manager, Myra Lucretia Taylor has the cadence of natural speech, and comes across like a friendly tour guide and a familiar presence—like a neighbor, in short. She’s proud of her town but she’s not blinded to its lack of excitement, nor is she apologetic. The tone of her narration and asides comes into focus when she states that a time capsule is being put together to be imbedded in a foundation, and says she wants a copy of “this play” to be included. The play we’re watching has the ambition to be “representative”—to tell, to the ages, what it was like, then and there. Early twentieth-century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. But is that really still an “Anytown, U.S.A.”?

Perhaps not, but Edelstein’s decision to cast the play “color blind,” means that the demographic of Grover’s Corners has shifted rather radically from the all-white enclave Wilder doubtless envisioned. We might be surprised that, in the listing of local places of worship, there’s no mention of a synagogue, but that just goes to show how segregated by geography much of the U.S. was. Not so much now, and that’s what makes Our Town risk seeming more of a “quaint” history lesson than it should be. Notice how only “the Polish” are given their own “town” within Our Town—an immediate indication of where the play occurs within the waves of immigration to the States and migration to the north. Of course, all this is deliberate by Wilder who wants to depict Yankee rectitude and its long-standing ties to a place where, as we’re told, the indigenous population—Cotahatchee tribes—has long since disappeared, but for genetic material carried by “maybe three families.”

Ethnic diversity—this production makes clear—is something that we can’t help notice, whether as presence or absence, and that may be the strongest message in the Long Wharf’s Our Town. If we still want Grover’s Corners to represent us, as a generalized, idealized image of the U.S. small town, for that time capsule, then we have to alter Wilder’s vision willfully and adapt the image, and that’s what Edelstein’s production does. A truly “post-racial” U.S. won’t think of the couples before us on stage as “mixed.” We’re not there yet, and that’s one of the strongest arguments for Edelstein’s approach: his Our Town says something about where we, as a nation, were in Wilder’s time and where we are now.

And that is very much Wilder’s intention: to look at the local fauna sub specie aeternitatis, to see how the customs of any given time look pretty paltry when looked at from eternity. That’s a big call and the play’s wherewithal to do so is what keeps us in the grip of Our Town to the end. And we note the little touches that keep prodding us toward realizations about what is generally called “the human condition”—which, the Stage Manager would probably say, is just a grand way of saying “how folks live.” Her mention of scenery—“for those who feel there should be scenery”—highlights the stripped down nature of this make believe, so that we’re free to imagine the town, especially in the early going when the rhythms of the town’s “day in the life” are the main concern.

Later, there’s a wedding that looks like the kind of non-denominational ceremonies we meet with more often these days, and finally, in the most affecting segment, Act 3, the rendition of a graveyard subtly mirrors us—the audience—to ourselves. We’re all people in chairs staring straight ahead, very much inside the moment out of time Wilder’s play strives for. Death looks like a Town Hall meeting, and there’s a certain human comedy to seeing Joe Stoddard (James Andreassi) and Mateo Gomez (Sam Craig) as undertaker and mourner stumbling about among “the graves.” Wilder wants to show us how simple and likeable people are when trying to grasp the ungraspable. And it’s only in Act 3 that the play really becomes the story of Emily (Jenny Leona) whose awed grasp of what it means to be alive and to no longer be alive moves the play’s tone—as it must—beyond the tragic to the cosmic.

Along the way, there are many nicely done moments to enjoy: the gentle fun at the expense of the pedantic Professor Willard (Steve Routman) and Taylor’s curt nod when the Prof describes the racial make-up of the majority; the McMillan twins as what comes to seem the Crowells’ monopoly on paper delivery in the town; Don Sparks giving Doc Gibbs some Jimmy Stewart inflections, adding a touch of the Capraesque; Leon Addison Brown, as Editor Webb, fielding questions from the audience with the folkiness of a fireside chat; Linda Powell delivering Mrs. Gibbs’ unsentimental view from beyond the grave; Christina Rouner’s harried Mrs. Webb, who tells us rather breathlessly that she didn’t know how to prepare her daughter for her wedding night—something elders in the audience may still recall—and lets us know that weddings are horrible; Rey Lucas as George Gibbs, flashing a winning smile back at the Stage Manager after he woos Emily, having admitted he’d rather stay in Grover’s Corners for her sake than go off to college, and the well-played silent comedy before his uneasy chat with his soon-to-be father-in-law; Jenny Leona is a fresh and blonde Emily, the town’s golden girl whose tragedy—if you like—is that she hasn’t a thought to do anything, barely out of high school, but marry a teenage boy and add to the town’s population. Indeed, the mothers in the play—Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb—keep before us the almost endless domestic activity that was simply the way of things back before anyone had even invented the term “household drudgery.” Leona gives us an Emily sharper than George, who Lucas plays with much more charm than smarts, but who is smart enough to know he can’t do any better. Ethnic diversity may have come to Grover’s Corners; feminism still seems a long way off.

Wilder’s important breakthrough in Our Town is setting naturalistic action in a context that foregrounds the playacting, a technique—which the Long Wharf production keeps firmly in view—that should reveal to us how much of our own lives are just that. We are players who strut and fret upon the stage of our town, wherever that happens to be, just like the players in Our Town. If the point of theater is, as Hamlet says, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, then the Long Wharf’s Our Town fully achieves that purpose. You may leave the play wondering what you’ve done with your life.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Our Town Opens

This Wednesday, October 8, previews for the first show of the Long Wharf Theatre’s 50th anniversary season begin. And that first show is an American classic: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Not only an American classic that many probably think they already know, the play has direct links to “our town” (i.e., New Haven) because Wilder lived here and is buried here. Not that Grover’s Corners should remind us of New Haven exactly. The play is actually set in a fictional New Hampshire town, and yet: Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who directs the play, has conceived of his cast as representing our local demographic more than any small town in Wilder’s day would have. That means that his cast is of diverse ethnicity, and, what’s more, his Stage Manager—a role associated with lean-jawed white actors such as William Holden, Hal Holbrook, and Paul Newman—is a black woman (Myra Lucretia Taylor).

That fact alone should make for an out-of-the-ordinary Our Town. And, to make the production even more “ours,” Edelstein has cast it with Long Wharf alums. So, if you’ve been going to the LW with any degree of regularity in its 50 year existence, you’re bound to see someone up there you’ve seen before.

Two such returners glad to be back are Jenny Leona, who will play Emily, and Rey Lucas, George. These two roles are, of course, the “romantic interest” characters in the play, who begin as neighbors and high school classmates who then become sweethearts and then . . . .

Both Leona and Lucas have experience playing younger than their years. In fact, Leona has played an adolescent boy on more than one occasion, and Lucas played the Boy in Eric Ting’s well-received adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in 2009. Leona, on the other hand, was anything but boyish in last season’s The Underpants, also directed by Edelstein.

When I talked to the two actors about Wilder’s play and their roles, both admitted that Our Town was a play they’d had youthful familiarity with—as most of us do, they encountered it in high school. Leona saw the TV version at some point and says “it stuck with me.” Returning to work with Edelstein, she says, is a “great opportunity” and found that, reading the play again—it had been about 10 years—she found it truly beautiful and thought she would be “perfect for Emily.” And why not? Leona comes by the quaintness of Our Town naturally—she spent 7 years of her childhood in Ardsley, an idyllic little village in West Chester County, and says it has remained a touchstone for her sense of small-town life.

For Lucas, a YSD grad raised in Queens by Dominican parents, Our Town brought to mind “folksy” TV shows like My Three Sons or Capra films like It’s a Wonderful Life—“a little cheesy.” Invited to take part in the show, he was intrigued by Edelstein’s color-blind casting and deliberate effort to diversify the cast ethnically. What’s more, he sees Edelstein’s approach as “more moving and compelling” than what Lucas may have formerly thought of the show. “If we forget what we’ve seen” the play’s truth will be more direct, he says. The play shows us “real families, with struggles and troubles.” Following Wilder’s intention, Lucas says, should give us a play that “combines Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso.” An apt expression of the everyday charm of the play contained within its sense of the more abstract and mythic possibilities of human life.

Both Leona and Lucas are excited by the opportunity to play romantic leads, and both find that there is unexpected comedy in the relationship of George and Emily that comes from inviting the audience to think back to their own introduction to teen-age love, to grasp how awkward and thrilling is the experience for these two. Lucas notes that Emily “calls George on his arrogance” and he responds quickly by falling in love with someone who cares enough to want him to improve—“not the sort of thing I was looking for in high school,” Lucas chuckles. Leona finds the awkwardness of the young lovers “adorable” and is glad of the opportunity, thanks to Edelstein’s search for “the true moments in the play and its spirit,” to find the humor in the early situations in the play. The later parts of the play, where things grow more troubled and dark, Leona says, are where she feels her strengths as an actress lie. Which may come as a surprise to anyone who saw her broadly comic role in The Underpants. That role, for Leona, was something of a surprise, and Our Town gives her an opportunity to show a full range of emotions.

The camaraderie of the cast should be expected, since all have worked at Long Wharf before and many with Edelstein, but, even so, both actors remarked on how quickly the process of bonding as a cast occurred on this production. When I spoke to Leona and Lucas, the rehearsals had not yet gone into tech, with scenery and so forth, but both pointed out that the sets will be unusually spare. Though both have had training with minimal sets, the challenge of acting out interactions with non-existent props presents another interesting aspect of the staging of Our Town.

For audiences who may think they know all there is to know about Grover’s Corners, Leoana suggests that this production will be “eye-opening” and Lucas points out the play’s satisfying sense of, as it were, “telling the stories behind the photo albums” most of us keep of our lives. The Long Wharf 50th Anniversary production of Our Town invites us to look a little closer at the “givens” we live with and our assumptions about the significance of our own lives. “Our town” has changed, and, with this cast, so should Our Town.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Tickets and info: Long Wharf


Panting for Something

Whether or not Louise Maske is hot to trot, her unpremeditated exposure of her underpants—sometimes called, rather anachronistically here, “panties”—while out to view the King on parade sets off the comic shenanigans in The Underpants, famed comic Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 1911 play by Carl Sternheim. Louise, a fetching young woman married to Theo, doesn’t even know she’s repressed, but, due to a loose tie, her knickers drop to her ankles in public, exposing her to a certain kind of male attention lacking in her life before. She stoops—to take off the underpants—and conquers, sparking the riveted attention of a pair of bachelors: one, Frank Versati, a proudly unpublished poet ready to rhapsodize her into bed; the other, Benjamin Cohen, a nebbishy barber who wants to worship her underthings.

With the well-timed intrusions of Gertrude Deuter, the nosy upstairs neighbor playing the part of eager duenna, we’re given a farce where cuckolding the self-possessed and rather clueless bourgeois husband is a comic given. Or, almost. In the end, the play is about the elasticity of marriage rather than the elation of adultery: the men who show up, beckoned by a glimpse of bloomers, are no better than the callous father-figure husband who, after all, has set Louise up as a perfectly respectable middle-class Hausfrau.

The play’s situation is primarily an excuse for arch innuendo, for comic turns by a sparkling cast, for jibes at Germans and their notorious attitude toward Jews, and for the kind of situations that, in a Frenchman’s hands, would’ve resulted in spicier bedroom schtick. Martin throws in the occasional racy bit—mostly coming from Gertrude, an eager onlooker panting to live vicariously through her very beddable neighbor—and we do get to see lacy underpants that are less revealing than a pair of boxers. To the extent that there’s an idea behind it all, it seems to be that our objects of desire—those random occasions for our libidinal spikes and fetishistic fervor, some even quite famous—can be remarkably short-lived, whereas baby-making, when all’s done, is what the fuss is inevitably about. Family values—“a man’s got to take care of someone”—and all that. Martin, as the playbill points out, realized in writing his adaptation that the bourgeoisie are us—regardless of politics.

As Louise, Jenny Leona is perfect. She’s cute, lively, demure but not dumb, not easily cozened, but willing to stray. It’s a performance so natural you have to stop to think about how badly it might be done. What director Gordon Edelstein gets across is that this blonde bombshell can be both the “angel in the house” that stands behind her man, as well as the object of those looking for a “geile Hausfrau.” The men are another matter. All clearly no match for her, or for Gertrude’s sense of possibility, we get to laugh at all of them, and each for a different reason.

Jeff McCarthy as Theo Maske is overbearing in that oblivious manner of the manly male. His wife is one of the things in his possession, not really a partner. As played here, he’s not really despicable, nor really hopeless. He’s the man of the house and the man Louise married, for better or worse, as the saying goes, and she (and we) might be forgiven for thinking he might get better. To Frank, played with pompous self-regard by Burke Moses, Louise is a source of inspiration—his best scene is when he lights her fire only to rush off to pen some lines, inspired by a conquest he never consummates. Much of the really funny stuff falls to Steve Routman as “Cohen with a K,” who gets to present us with the caricature that might be nearest Martin’s heart, or maybe it’s just a tribute to the kind of schlemiel and ambivalent Jew—humming Wagner and wondering aloud how anyone who cites Herder or Schiller could ever be less than humane—that Woody Allen established himself playing early in his career.

Routman’s rubber-legged departure after swallowing a sleeping draught is great fun, as is his slide across stage on a pillow while clutching a mirror to see up his hostess’s dress. The other comic standout is Didi Conn’s Gertrude, playing up moments like fanning her pelvis with the refrigerator door—after Theo turns her on—or miming a husband “doing his job.” It’s a role that requires charm to avoid crudity, and Conn certainly charms the audience.

Indeed, charm is a large part of what makes the Long Wharf production work. Start with Lee Savage’s set, with the Old World charm of its kitchenette, its double-door perfect for well-timed entrances and exits, its stairs and settees begging for the kind of physical comedy Edelstein’s production showcases. Jess Goldstein’s costuming—including Louise’s stripped-for-fun period underclothing, a pair of German flag underpants, and Kaiser regalia—is bright and eye-catching, and the play’s timing mostly on point.

A bit understated, perhaps, The Underpants is a brisk and benign evening of fun. “That’s where the danger lies. Under,” opines Theo early in the play, certainly a worthy thought in the play’s Freudian era, but, despite gestures to Nietzsche and Einstein, The Underpants, though willing to catch its characters with their pants down, and even off, doesn’t give any character the wherewithal to get down to it.


The Underpants By Steve Martin Adapted from Carl Sternheim Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Fight Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Melissa M. Spengler; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre October 16-November 10, 2013