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“The Panties, The Partner and the Profit”
Turna Mete as A Young Woman and Carson Elrod as Joseph Mask. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky
Shakespeare Theatre Company
450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
Opened December 10, 2018
Box Office: 202.547-1122 (Monday-Sunday, noon-6:00 p.m.)
Here’s a quiz for American drama aficionados. What three-part play features an American family as stand-ins for “all of us”; unfolds over a few eras; shows the widespread effects of ordinary people’s greed and aggression, often in the name of being hardworking; has some illicit sex; ends in the ruins of the family’s one-time home; brings a large reptile onstage; and concludes with the family soldiering on?
If you guessed “The Skin of Our Teeth,” good for you, but the play in question is David Ives’s “The Panties, The Partner and the Profit,” subtitled “Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class” and now in its debut at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Ives’s inspiration is not Thornton Wilder, but Carl Sternheim (1878-1942), a German playwright who resisted the label Expressionist, although it was pinned on him, and whose best-known work comprises a series of plays about the fictional but pointedly named Maske family. The source plays excoriate the grasping, soulless, social-climbing middle class, whose real-life turning a blind eye during Sternheim’s lifetime to anything that did not benefit them personally led to, well, fill in the blanks. It was not a stretch for Ives or director Michael Kahn to see timely connections.
Ives introduces the Masks (perhaps the final “e” was dropped at Immigration) on July 4, 1950, when an irate young husband (Carson Elrod) and his flustered wife (Kimberly Gilbert) enter their decidedly “Honeymooners”-esque Boston apartment after her underpants have fallen down while watching a parade near the Common. Hence “The Panties.” She pleads wardrobe malfunction because worn out elastic. He fears that her now scandalous reputation will make it impossible for them to rent out the rooms on which they rely for enough income to keep body and soul together. (His day job is counting garbage. The distinction between collecting and counting will come home to roost in part two.)
But the opposite occurs, as two men who have witnessed the event rush in to claim the rooms and be near the hapless and very pretty Mrs. M. One is a Byronic poet descended from Paul Revere (Tony Roach); the other is a nebbishy, hypochondriacal Jewish barber (Kevin Isola). Guess which one beds the sex-starved hausfrau.
Fast forward to 1987 and “The Partner.” Set in an overstatedly expensive, wood-paneled Wall Street office, its protagonist is the Masks’ son (Kevin Isola), whose note to self is, “if I’m not a partner at a venerable financial firm, what am I?” Well, a kept man, for one thing, whose wealthy and older mistress is somewhere on a spectrum from Cruella de Vil to the demonic Alex of “Fatal Attraction,” and who is played to brittle, serpentine perfection by Julia Coffey. He can’t afford to have a mistress who knows too much about him if he wants to make partner in this toniest of WASP firms, so he shoots her when she turns his attempt to buy her off into probable blackmail. A worse threat to his corporate aspirations awaits when his parents arrive for a birthday visit and mom, entering a dotty phase, reveals that her boy—named Christian—is half Jewish. Go, nebbishes!
Both Mask Senior and Junior have kept account books with tallies of precisely how much dad spent to raise his son (they disagree over a few hundred dollars), but recall that this is 1987, and Christian’s boss needs the quickest fix possible for his spendthrift ways, perhaps sensing that ascending line on the financial graph is about to take a nose dive. He’d happily have a Jewish partner if that will stave off bankruptcy. Add one bloody ghost (the mistress), one hasty proposal (Christian to the boss’s airhead daughter, played with the right balance of cluelessness and honesty by Turna Mete), and exile to Buenos Aires (the Mask parents). What will it yield for the family?
Everything and nothing, as “The Profit”—set “Tomorrow Morning”—finds the third generation of blended family Mask siblings, half-siblings, and cousins at the edge of a literal abyss. The global catastrophes wrought by their self absorption, indifference, and massive investments in The Wrong Stuff have caused a chunk of the California coast—where else would they live but Malibu?—to fall away. The sea monster whose appearances in earlier decades have made international news that was shrugged off by the previous generations is now literally at the door. Well, the window, in Alexander Dodge’s set design. Five seemingly incompatible family members square off, with one a billionaire brat (Gilbert), one a preachy ascetic (Mete), one an angry trans punk (Coffey), one a homeless interloper (Elrod) , and one a bet-hedging rabbi (Isola), whose favorite words in Scripture are “and so they went forth.” Which, of course, this “they” must and do.
Facets of this production are ham-fisted when the whole seems to want to be satire played as farce. Doors could slam faster. The Boston accents in “The Panties” are just enough off to distract. Actor Tony Roach feels slightly uncomfortable playing a generation older than his actual age in “The Partner.” The last-minute arrival of a female body builder in “The Panties” allows for one more rental of the same room but plays as an almost gratuitous add-on. The sea monster in “The Profit” looks less apocalyptic than like a kind of Chinese paper dragon in cheap drag. Clues dropped in part one (e.g., the clock stopped at 11:07) recur unsubtly (in part three, it is finally 11:08).
I’m not sure this is the Important Play the extensive program notes seem to want us to think it is. However, it is fun, it does have a purpose well beyond yuks, and it offers a chance for six actors to chew on three colorful roles apiece. Steve Martin’s adaptation of the first of Sternheim’s plays, called “The Underpants,” enjoyed some traction in university productions. “The Panties, the Partner and the Profit” is ripe for the same.
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