Putting on The Underpants

Long Wharf Theatre begins its season with a sex farce

Gordon Edelstein directs a rehearsal for Long Wharf Theatre's 2012 production of "My Name is Asher Lev." Image courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

Gordon Edelstein directs a rehearsal for Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012 production of “My Name is Asher Lev.” Image courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

Amanda May

Coming off a very successful season that included the unveiling of a major renovation, as well as critically acclaimed productions of My Name is Asher Lev, Clybourne Park, and Satchmo at the Waldorf, Long Wharf Theatre will start this season with a comedy.

Gordon Edelstein, the organization’s artistic director, spoke with The Arts Paper about The Underpants and the art of putting a season together. The following includes snippets of that conversation.

In Edelstein’s 13th year as artistic director, and the theater’s 49th, he will be directing at least two plays, the first of which is the season opener, The Underpants, a 1910 German play by Carl Sternheim (Die Hose), adapted by Hollywood funnyman and author Steve Martin.

“It’s been several years since I’ve done an out-and-out comedy, and I thought it was time,” Edelstein said. “They’re always in the season, but (I) haven’t directed one in years.”

For Edelstein, who chooses all of the plays for each season, it’s important to stay challenged as a director.

“You put together a menu of work, and I try to pick plays for myself to direct that I’m passionate about, something I have something to say about. And it’s always good if I’m a little nervous,” he said.

While he personally tends not to direct a lot of comedy, his work “always has comedy in it.”

“I’m always interested in finding the comedic side to otherwise tragic situations,” he explained.

“Comedy is a funny word,” Edelstein continued. “What’s called comedy now has changed from the past.

People don’t write comedies any more. They are much more bittersweet and melancholy now, compared to what Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare wrote. But this play is totally a comedy, even though it has a seriousness of purpose about it.”

Steve Martin. Image courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

Steve Martin. Image courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

Edelstein contends that Steve Martin, even at his most ridiculous, has a seriousness to him. This unique capability to mix silly with smart has long been Martin’s key to success.

“He mixes high and lowbrow as well as anybody,” Edelstein said. “Think about Steve’s career—he’s one of the smartest guys in show business. His original stand up was brilliant and post-modern. He really changed comedy.”

While most people know Martin as an actor and comedian —the “wild and crazy guy” that got big laughs on Saturday Night Live— he has long been a writer as well.

“He’s a great writer,” Edelstein said. “I prefer Roxanne (the 1987 movie that Martin wrote the adaptation for) to (Edmond Rostand’s verse play) Cyrano de Bergerac. He’s always been a writer, most stand-up comedians write their own jokes. He combines complete goofball, sometimes it’s even stupid, with a smartness. In fact, I was speaking to him last night—he is erudite, brilliant.”

The play itself is not that well known. It was written in 1910 and banned in 1911 in Germany for being “risqué.”

Edelstein promises that by today’s standards, The Underpants is not.

“It is hilarious, in the great tradition of sex farces, but is also a meditation on fame,” he explained. “Sex is a great topic for humor, the most classical. It won’t be shocking, god no, but people will relate to it and, I hope, find it very funny.”

In the play, which takes place in the early 1900s in Dusseldorf, several men are doing everything they can to get into the underpants of a woman—a woman whose underpants they’ve glimpsed, fleetingly (by accident), according to Edelstein.

“What can be older than that a bunch of guys chasing a cute girl, making fools of themselves?” he asked.

The Underpants is just one piece of the season Edelstein put together.

To plan a season “the forces that come together are many and always complicated,” according to Edelstein. In addition to considering which plays he can secure and cast, for him, each play should ask a question.

“It’s an investigation,” he explained. “If you know the answer beforehand, why are you asking the question? I choose plays that ask a question that I’m interested in, and of course the audience as well. At the same time, I try to pick plays that I am reasonably confident I can come up with some answer.”

“I’m always interested in finding
the comedic side to otherwise tragic situations.”
—Gordon Edelstein

According to Edelstein, this will be a “varied season” and it should have a “hilarious, spirited, and irreverent” start.

Other highlights of the season that Edelstein is looking forward to include the world premiere of a new Athol Fugard play, The Shadow of the Hummingbird, in which Fugard will appear onstage for the first time in over a decade. It is the second play that Edelstein plans to direct this season.

“This is a great work by a late master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life,” Edelstein said. “It is written by and starring one of the most important voices in the world theater in the last 50 years. We are honored that Athol has chosen to give us his newest play.

“We will also have a beautiful musical, The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown,” Edelstein said. “It is a brilliantly moving portrait of a marriage with gorgeous music and hilarious lyrics. I think this love story strikes a chord with people of all ages.”

Phylicia Rashad will also be directing at Long Wharf Theatre this year, in the second play of the 2013-2014 season, Fences, the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic by August Wilson.

For more information about the 2013-14 season, or to purchase tickets, visit www.longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Long Wharf Theatre’s 2013-14 season

The Underpants
By Carl Sternheim,
adaptated by Steve Martin
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
October 16-November 10

Fences
By August Wilson
Directed by Phylicia Rashad
November 27-December 22

The Consultant
World premiere
By Heidi Schreck
Directed by Kip Fagan
January 8-February 9, 2014

4.000 Miles
By Amy Herzog
Directed by Eric Ting
February 19– March 16, 2014

The Shadow of the Hummingbird
World premiere
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
March 26-April 27, 2014

The Last Five Years
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
May 7-June 1, 2014
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