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'Underpants' cast makes silly seem sophisticated

For all the arrows through his head and his wild and crazy guys, Steve Martin is nobody's fool, particularly as a playwright. His ''Picasso at the Lapin Agile" was as concerned with philosophy, art, and physics as it was with farcical turns. ''The Underpants" is plugged into the psychology of celebrity and sensuality.

Martin being Martin, the comedy is full of sexual double entendres, all delivered with gusto by the admirable Lyric Stage Company of Boston cast. Martin, of course, knows his way around a good one-liner, both as a comedian and as a writer. And the local actors, under Daniel Gidron's savvy direction, do him proud.

You might know the play -- then again, you probably don't -- as Carl Sternheim's ''The Knickers" or ''The Bloomers." The 1910 comedy was the first work in a trilogy satirizing German life before World War I. Sternheim saw the life of the bourgeoisie as petty, and you can't get much pettier than Theo Maske, the self-satisfied head of his household of two.

That Martin changes the title to ''The Underpants" is a hint of his penchant for making the story, and its humor, as obvious as it is satirical. That's mostly a good thing, as the dialogue is appropriate to the turn of both the 20th and 21st centuries, though the obviousness also bespeaks an adolescent streak in Martin that's always threatening to undercut his sophistication as an artist.

Fortunately, the cast is so attuned to both Martin and Sternheim that they make the silly seem sophisticated and the sophisticated seem silly. A line like ''I'll slip in and out before you notice it" could provoke grimaces rather than grins, but not in this production.

The story begins with Maske's anger at his wife, who lost her lingerie while waving to the king during a parade in Dusseldorf. Theo is afraid he'll lose something, too -- his standing as a minor bureaucrat in the government -- not stopping to worry that he might also lose his wife's affection to the men who come around telling him they want to rent a room, when what they really want is another view of what they saw at the parade.

Steven Barkhimer is pitch-perfect -- what else is new? -- as the clueless Theo, blind to his wife's beauty and charm, while Lewis D. Wheeler and Neil A. Casey vigorously vie for Mrs. Maske as, respectively, a sophisticated poet and a nebbishy barber.

But as good as the men are, it's the women who make ''The Underpants" wriggle. (I didn't say I was above adolescent humor, did I?) Caroline Lawton was lustrous in an ensemble role in last summer's ''Arcadia" at the Publick Theatre, but here she so commands the stage that Lawton serves notice she could be the next big star in Boston. Whether her Louise Maske is in a spacey, wide-eyed frame of mind or turning on her love light for the poet, she's an absolute delight. And Stephanie Clayman as Louise's friend is an aider and abettor who has one foot in classic comedy -- think Frosine in ''The Miser" -- and another in situation comedy -- think Ethel Mertz in ''I Love Lucy."

The writing, acting, direction, and set design (by Cristina Todesco, who creates a wonderful sense of depth in the small apartment) all make ''The Underpants" never less than amiable. But is it much more than that? Aside from some moments of contemporary satire, ''The Underpants" feels somewhat slight.

The production, meanwhile, could use more physical humor. There are a lot of chuckles to be had in ''The Underpants," but some good belly laughs might make us forget that the satire is mostly on the surface.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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