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Star of 'The Underpants' plays farce for high stakes

''The Underpants," Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1910 comedy that opens in previews tonight at the Lyric Stage Company, is routinely billed as ''hilarious," ''laugh-out-loud funny," ''sidesplitting," and so forth. Naturally, that's an actor's nightmare.

''We get those 'laugh-out-loud-funny' headlines and think, 'We can't possibly live up to that,' " says Caroline Lawton, who makes her Lyric debut as Louise, the mild-mannered housewife whose wardrobe malfunction -- an inadvertently exposed pair of pantaloons at a military parade -- sets the farcical plot in motion. ''But we've been laughing all the way through rehearsals," she says. ''It's fantastic."

Lawton, whose performance in last summer's ''Arcadia" at the Publick Theatre was widely praised, is quick to credit her colleagues in ''The Underpants" -- Steven Barkhimer, Stephanie Clayman, Lewis D. Wheeler, and Neil A. Casey among them -- with finding the comic nuances in every line. ''Everything kind of spins off of Louise's character, who's really this straight man," she says. ''Everybody is insane around her."

Lawton notes that she didn't really train in comedy; her background was in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. ''I really had never done comedy until I was cast in 'Shear Madness,' " she says.

But the long-running, crowd-pleasing antics of ''Madness," she says, proved to be ''great training" in comedy technique. ''And I'm still trying to bring that same idea in from drama: play for the highest stakes possible," Lawton says. ''It's comedy to everyone else, but it's still tragedy to the character."

Indeed, Martin's adaptation, while maintaining the farcical character of the original, also uses it to touch on a potentially deeper contemporary theme: the fleetingness of fame. When Louise's undergarments bring her temporary celebrity, she becomes, Lawton says, a kind of ''1900 Real World" reality-TV participant. ''You get that momentary glimpse of fame, and it's so elusive, and you mourn it, and you wish it would come back."

It doesn't, of course. And that's funny.

Daniel Gidron directs ''The Underpants" at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., through Feb. 4. Tickets, $20-45, 617-585-5678 (a new phone number); www.lyricstage.com.

African-American festival
The Our Place Theatre Project Inc. presents this year's African American Theatre Festival, Tuesday through Jan. 22, at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont St. Highlights include the world premiere of Elliot Norton Award and IRNE winner Jacqui Parker's ''Dark as a Thousand Midnights" and ''Rhythm of the People." Donors who give $100 for the festival receive two tickets to the preview night of either show, along with a private preshow reception with Parker and the rest of the cast. For information on donating, call 617-989-9235.

For tickets, $10-$42.50, call 617-933-8600 or visit www.bostontheatrescene.com.

A funny thing happened . . .
Brooks Ashmanskas, who had been scheduled to lead as Pseudolus in Nicholas Martin's production of ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at the Huntington in May, has withdrawn because of a scheduling conflict. Ashmanskas, currently on Broadway in ''The Producers," can't do ''Forum" because he'll be appearing in the new Martin Short show, also on Broadway. The Huntington is searching for a replacement.

'Iceman Cometh' soon
David Morse will lead a staged reading of Eugene O'Neill's ''The Iceman Cometh" on Monday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. at the Shubert Theatre. The reading, rescheduled from the fall, kicks off the third annual ''American Voices: Drama, Dialogue, Downtown" series of readings, presented by the Wang Center for the Performing Arts and the Poduska Family Foundation and sponsored by the Boston Phoenix.

Steven Maler of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will direct. The series continues with readings of Lorraine Hansberry's ''A Raisin in the Sun" on Feb. 27 and Tennessee Williams's ''The Night of the Iguana" on March 13. Tickets, $5-10, 800-447-7400; www.wangcenter.org.

A tradition is born
And speaking of the Wang Center, its president, Josiah Spaulding Jr., calls its holiday show, ''Irving Berlin's White Christmas," ''a gigantic success." The show, which is slated to return in 2007, drew more than 110,000 people and sold more than $7 million in tickets, he said. ''It beat our expectations," Spaulding said. ''I do think to the public we've created a new holiday tradition."

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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