Part of the fun of reading a classical work that has been updated for modern audiences is seeing how a contemporary author takes well-known scenes and characters and puts them into a modern setting. This is something Steve Martin did with great success in adapting the play Cyrano de Bergerac into the film Roxanne and with less success in his adaptation of the novel Silas Marner into the movie A Simple Twist of Fate.
His latest attempt at adaptation falls somewhere in the middle, but this time he has chosen a less well-known work Ė Carl Sternheimís play The Underpants Ė with which to tinker. Not being familiar with the original (as I assume few people are), itís impossible to determine where Martin deviates from the original. However, Martinís unmistakable imprint is in on the play, both in its wicked wit and its nimble use of language.
The play centers on a married German couple and the scandal that follows after the wifeís underpants fall down in public, as they wait to see the king passing by in a parade. The incident embarrasses the usually inattentive husband and makes the wife an unwitting object of desire. In fact, shortly after the parade, two men come to the coupleís home, ostensibly to rent a space room, but more interested in wooing the wife. Or so it seems.
If I had to guess (which I actually do), I would say that the underlying theme of Martinís work Ė the fickleness of desire Ė is carried over from Sternheimís original play. This is a topic the play has a great deal of fun with, as in a hilarious scene in which one of the suitors has an ample opportunity to seduce the clearly willing wife, but chooses instead to wax poetic about his love.
However, the talky nature of the play (despite the topic and the title, thereís very little action in The Underpants) may make it better suited to the printed page than to the stage. The characters here seem to serve more as symbols than as believable vessels of life. Granted, the play is a satire, but itís hard for an audience to become emotionally invested in them. It seems far too obvious that their actions are intended to advance the plot and prove a point. Yet, it is a funny play and one that has something to say, which makes it at least worth a read, even for those not familiar with the original.