Whenever a popular non-theater person writes a play or musical, it's seen as salvation in the theater community, as in: “Billy Joel is going to save the musical!”
Most of these shows—Joel's Movin'Out,Paul Simon's The Capeman,Paul McCartney's GiveMyRegardstoBroadStreet(such a bad film even a Beatle couldn't bring it to the stage)—are terrible. They put a few butts in a few seats, but all they bring are dollars, not the discerning attitudes or critical acumen needed to infuse theater with genuine vibrancy by recognizing—and demanding—truly great work.
Which brings us—somehow—to Steve Martin, whose 1993 play, PicassoattheLapineAgile,was the biggest theatrical smash not written by a theater guy since, well, ever. It did boffo box everywhere and, more interestingly, actually sparked debate, with many praising it as a trenchant intellectual comedy penned by one of America's genuine comic geniuses, while others pissed on it as a cheap, cheeky throwaway rattled off by a stand-up comic who sold his soul after TheJerk.
So the occasion three years ago of Martin's first post-Picasso full-length play—his adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1910 satire TheUnderpants—and its Orange County premiere last month at Laguna Playhouse were a relatively big deal. But while Picassomay yet reach landmark status, there's little room for argument in Underpants:the world would lose nothing if every copy of this script were raptured away tomorrow.
It's clever enough, and there are peppery one-liners liberally dolloped throughout, most revolving around how women exist solely to cook, clean and serve as human cum dumps. Its politics are unnervingly rudimentary, since most of the action centers on a woman hounded by sexually crazed men who obsess over her because they catch a glimpse of her underpants. But this is a satire attacking middle-class values of morality and sexuality and all that rot, so taking things too seriously doesn't do anyone any good.
Actor Ron Campbell is the best of a strong cast, and director Andrew Barnicle gets the tone and pace perfect, but Underpantssuffers from an overwhelming slightness. The satire lacks edge. The salaciousness lacks kink. The witticisms lack resonance. Set in the time of bloomers, Underpantscomes off like a theatrical thong: barely there one moment, completely gone the next.
THE UNDERPANTS AT THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-ARTS. TUES.-FRI., 8 p.m.; SAT., 2 N 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 N 7 P.M. (NO 7 P.M. SHOW MAY 1). THROUGH MAY 1. $22-$54.