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Dingy drawers 

Playmakers' fallen Underpants pushes much better shows to side stages

click to enlarge Matthew Patterson and Winslow Corbett in PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER
  • Photo by Jon Gardiner
  • Matthew Patterson and Winslow Corbett in PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin

Suppose, for just a moment, that you had to fill three plays into three slots at the start of a theater season. The first one's your big season opener: a four-week run with big publicity in a 500-seat mainstage; a show that will set the tone for a new year for a theater company in transition. The second and third sets are relatively low-impact, four- and five-day single weekend runs the month before, on an intimate 200-seat side stage. One's a faculty show that will be given limited advance advertising and publicity—commodities that the third, a show for advanced undergraduates, will largely not receive.

As it happens, all three scripts deal with sex.

One took the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play--and the Pulitzer Prize for drama--two years ago during its one-year run on Broadway. It's a biographical one-person show about a transvestite museum curator who somehow managed to outlive both the Nazis and the repressive Communist regime during a lifetime in East Berlin.

The second is a sleek, edgy number in which the changing partners in a quartet of London 20-to-30-somethings play mind games with one another as they struggle with intimacy, fidelity and sexual temptation. It took a series of awards on the West End before transferring to a successful half-year run on Broadway.

The third, by all accounts, is a comparatively pedestrian sex farce that garnered no awards--and indeed, no nominations--in an off-Broadway run that lasted exactly 24 days.

Which show would you put where? Which production's your showcase? Which one would you be tempted to bury with a minimum of resources and fuss?

What would your choices say about the type of theater you want most to promote in the region? What would the public take to be the level of the conversation you're interested in having with them on the subject?

Finally, how much faith would your choices indicate you had in your audience?

These are the questions we're left pondering after viewing the three works with which UNC's Department of Dramatic Art began the new academic year.

For as astute theatergoers already know, a quartet of advanced undergraduate students gave Patrick Marber's edgy CLOSER a surprisingly commendable--if unadvertised--production under the deft direction of Gregory Kable during the first four nights of September in the 200-seat Kenan Theater.

After a May run at Asheville's Stoneleaf Festival--at which time company spokespersons were still unable to confirm any future production dates in Chapel Hill--I AM MY OWN WIFE, the thought-provoking recipient of the 2004 Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer prizes for best play, was finally granted four nights and one matinee to make its case, in the same room, over one weekend in mid-September.

Which leaves us, unfortunately, with Playmakers Repertory Company's telling choice for its big season opener: a staging of Steve Martin's inoffensive--and certainly unchallenging--little sex farce, THE UNDERPANTS.

No, one of these things is not like the others.

Though both actors are put to noticeably lesser use on stage in the current Playmakers offering, Julie Fishell directed John Feltch to give curator Charlotte von Mahlsdorf a distinctly crisp and simple voice, one insistent above all upon dignity, in last month's showing of I Am My Own Wife. Michelle Moody's spare set and Traci Meek's severe costuming underlined the sharpness in von Mahlsdorf's ordered world. Though Feltch's sudden switches among a broad range of characters proved occasionally vertiginous, the production preserves the enigma of a transvestite who survived the radical times in which she lived by withdrawing into a self-constructed time capsule devoted to the gründerzeit, or everyday objects, of the gay 1890s.

Two weeks earlier, we noted the smooth, stylized sheen of Patrick Link, Alec Wells and Kirsten Ehlert's segue stage projections in Closer. They seemed particularly fitting for a tale in which four Londoners look for true intimacy but keep getting preoccupied with various surfaces instead: By tale's end the exquisitely sculpted skin of the opposite sex, computer screens connected to porno chat rooms, the polished prose of a bestselling non-fiction novel and the glossy coating of a photographic exhibition ultimately reveal everything about their subjects--and sometimes their creators--except the truth.

Katherine Canipe finds the edgy vulnerability in the character of Alice, a young woman more easily photographed and written of than loved, while Link achieves much here as the prickly Larry, a rough-edged, no-nonsense doctor from the working classes who possesses a wicked sense of justice when it comes to personal relationships. Indeed, given the caliber of the performances in this production, I was surprised to learn that its actors were not graduate students from the department's Professional Actors Training Program.

There's another reason why timing makes The Underpants a strange choice for the Playmakers mainstage. It was staged in Raleigh only last summer, in a July 2005 Actors Comedy Lab production at Thompson Theater. (Improbably, Playmakers will repeat another Actors Comedy Lab production this year when it produces Stones in His Pockets in January. The ACL version ran at Theatre in the Park in December 2004.)

Though we fell in love with the crazy angles of Marion Williams' multi-level fun-house of a set, Winslow Corbett's insubstantial take on Louise, the owner of the titled unmentionables, does not improve on Morissa Nagel's more vexed--and grounded--interpretation from last July. Director Gene Saks puts the rest of this cast through its sitcom paces, with notable cameos by Ray Dooley (with whom Williams drolly visually references Sigmund Freud) and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as a kinder, gentler, thinking man's lecher.

But with a plot that can be easily reduced to a single, off-color punch line, the only thing this production lacks, in the end, is a compelling reason to be on the stage of Paul Green Theatre.

To be fair, given the recent shakeup in company and department management, there's every reason to believe that the decisions to stage these three disparate works were made at different times by different people. Just last week, a company press representative reiterated the disclaimer that Joseph Haj, Playmakers' new artistic director, had no choice in the selection of this season's mainstage works.

The point remains: Someone else did. And the sight of two award-winning--but potentially challenging--scripts, marginalized in deliberately minimal side-stage showings, while a confirmed mediocrity like The Underpants claims Playmakers' center stage, inadvertently underlines the need for a major upgrade in artistic vision at the company. We are told it's in the works. Until it arrives, we have to wait.

click to enlarge Healing hands? Michael O'Foghludha as the title character in Faith Healer - PHOTO COURTESY OF LITTLE GREEN PIG THEATRICAL CONCERN

Waiting is not advised, however, for FAITH HEALER, the latest in a string of notable productions by Durham's Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. With this work coming so close on the heels of their 5-star production of The Cherry Orchard at Manbites Dog Theater, regional theatergoers had to wonder just how deep their bench is. Here's the answer: Deep enough. And then some.

We now have to add Dana Marks' name to the list of directors to keep an eye on, after her nuanced work here with company founder Jay O'Berski, Nicole Farmer and Michael O'Foghludha in the title role.

Regional playgoers have seen playwright Brian Friel's works before, in productions of Molly Sweeney at Playmakers Rep and The Dancing at Lughnasa at Raleigh Little Theatre. This production echoes the structure of Molly Sweeney as its characters gradually reveal three sides of the same secret: the event that ended the career of a faith healer who travels the country as something of a sideshow act.

His name is Francis Hardy, and, as we ultimately learn, he's a remarkably faithless man for the business he's in. Marks' collaboration with O'Foghludha has produced a twisted, bitter man who's been slowly tortured over the years by the unpredictable, rare--but still real--occurrences of the miraculous at his hands. In his way, O'Foghludha's Hardy is a man in search of a miracle all his own--but one that's unrelated to the laying on of hands.

O'Berski's comic take on eccentric manager Teddy leavens the drama with humor, after Farmer exposes the sharpest need a faithless man cannot fulfill in her tragic reading of Hardy's companion, the ironically named Grace.

The company stages this evocative work environmentally, in Chapel Hill's Chapel of the Cross this Saturday night, Oct. 21, with performances next Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Leland Little Auction House in Hillsborough, and Friday, Oct. 27 in the building at 108 Morris St., next to the Durham Arts Council building. All performances start at 8 p.m.; tickets are $12. Directions to the specific performances are listed on the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern Web site.

Our recommendation? A show like this is well worth the trip.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

Faith Healer

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Various Locations
Through Oct. 27
The Underpants

Playmakers Repertory Company
Through Oct. 29
I Am My Own Wife

Playmakers Repertory Company

UNC DDA Advanced Showcase


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