In “The Underpants,” Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 97-year-old German comedy that began previews last night at the Two River Theater, the character of the king is a looming but largely unseen presence.
The story concerns a woman who, in an effort to get a glimpse of the king passing by in a parade, experiences a brief undergarment malfunction in public, an event that ahem gives rise to multiple attempts at seduction.
It also mortifies the woman’s husband, Theo, a bureaucrat who worries that the king himself saw what others so indelibly saw. But though his portrait hangs on the stage throughout the play, the king doesn’t appear in person until near the end.
Red Bank’s own Joe Russo, a 61-year-old teacher in the performing arts program at Red Bank Regional, plays the king. redbankgreen was fortunate to get an audience with His Highness earlier this week as the company prepared for its monthlong run.
How long have you been teaching theater?
Twenty-four years, all at Red Bank Regional. Before that, I did a bunch of acting and directing. I was the artistic director of the children’s company at the Basie when they had that, and I was also the stage director, so I kind of had two hats. I’d done quite a bit of regional theater before that.
They didn’t know what to do with me in the Army, so they made me direct plays. I got drafted in ’69, two days after Nixon took office. One of the things I did was a play called “The Lion in Winter,” in which I played Henry II, which got me a scholarship that led me to the Barter Theater, which is the state theater of Virginia, which led to the Barter Award and got me an Equity card.
Here, you play another king, one who’s talked about a fair amount but not much seen.
I get to be the button on the end, which is great.
Do you feel you have to live up to expectations about the character? Because there’s this tension over whether the king saw the underpants.
Right. Well, I hope you’ll see the show, because you get both the royal presence and the human side, because he did see the underpants, obviously. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.
Recognizing that this is a comedy about falling underwear and rising sexual desire, what would you say is the play’s theme?
I think part of it is about the awakening of Louise, the young wife (who loses her drawers). It’s about her education about men and love and sex. I think she sort of becomes a woman in the play, and becomes much more aware of what’s going on.
So it’s got a little bit of Ibsen to it?
Yeah, I think she’s a little bit of Nora, and there’s a little bit of “A Doll’s House” in there. But in a funny way, and I think in a pretty accurate way, too.
Have you read the original, pre-Steve Martin version, by Carl Sternheim?
I haven’t, but I hear the original play is much different. It was a comedy, but there was one scene where the husband gets so angry at Louise that he sort of beats her up. That doesn’t happen in our version.
The fear of embarrassment really eats at Theo, doesn’t it?
Yeah, he’s afraid he’s going to lose his job, that this public display is going to cause him not only shame and embarrassment but dishonor.
It’s all about him, isn’t it?
Well, from his point of view… And she kind of latches onto the fame of it and enjoys the attention.
Is this your crowning achievement, so to speak, in the theater?
Oh, I’ve played a lot of bigger roles, but this was an opportunity to do something local, and I said, you know what? It’s time for me to go ahead and try to do this. And I was lucky enough to get it. It’s my first acting job with the Two River.
Aside from the things I’ve done with the kids, I’ve probably been in about 100 shows.
Speaking of your students, do they give you a lot of grief about being in a play called “The Underpants?”
They’re just excited. They know it’s a comedy, that it’s a bit risque. And anything named “The Underpants,” they’re interested in.
“The Underpants” premieres Saturday and runs through May 27. Tickets are available online and at the box office.