Somehow there is a cosmic joke running through Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class” and it’s enough of an undercurrent that the laughter has a little bite. We live in a confined world where money is salvation and downfall all in one. But when that is the accepted measurement for one’s place in the world, how do you know who you are when that changes?
. . .the performances are delicious and it’s just zany enough to be a very nice way to destress after a week of working.
Set in three loosely-connected acts, the show follows three generations of a family, the Masks. On July 4, 1950, the action starts when Joseph and Louise Mask return home from watching the parade at Boston Common. There had been a mishap in their day—her panties fell off, and according to her husband, 50,000 men and George Washington all turned to lust after her. These early Masks are scrapping to get into the middle class; he has a job with the city and they rent out the extra rooms in their apartment to earn more money. Because of the mishap, they end up renting the rooms to two men, one of whom, Benjamin Mandelshtam, becomes the father of her son (don’t ask—her husband evidently has not consummated the marriage), but her husband doesn’t really care since they have renters and can now afford a baby. During the second act, Christian Mask, the son, is working on Wall Street. He’s up for partner, but through a series of unfortunate events, kills his lover (well, maybe, for someone who got shot in the heart she keeps going), may or may not marry his boss’s daughter, locks his father in a closet, and his mother loses her hat. But he’s in the lower reaches of the upper class, so all’s well. Finally, in Act 3, the granddaughters (Ursula and Louise), are filthy rich, just as the world is ending (well, not really, but it seems to be and there’s a giant snake), and they lose all their money, but meet up with all the cash-poor branches of the family.
Overall, the show is very funny, and one of the funniest bits is with Julia Coffey as the lover of Christian Mask in The Profit—she is shot in the heart but doesn’t really die. After she is dragged into the bathroom, she keeps popping out to make anti-capitalism pronouncements before staggering off-stage. Her timing is impeccable and the gag works because presumably, she didn’t have a heart.
Kimberly Gilbert imbues her role as Louise Mask with pathos, flashes of independence, and sheer inadvertent mayhem. She is the most easily accessible character, in all incarnations, and the one that seems the most human—at least she does have a sort of moral compass. In her own ditzy way, she provides the overarching question the three one-acts seem to pose—what is the purpose of life, and how can we fulfill it; is it even possible in a world where unfettered capitalism is the measuring stick?
All the actors are funny in their roles; Tony Roach seems built to play the over-the-top poet, partner, and furniture-remover. He exudes such an air of denseness combined with self-satisfaction at his specialness that even his way of walking is funny. The cast is rounded out by Julia Coffey as Trudy Reezner, Sybil Rittenhouse and Omega; Carson Elrod as Joseph Mask, Joseph Mask and Joe Jones; Kevin Isola as Benjamin Mandelshtam, Christian Mask, Rabbi Mandelshtam; and Turna Mete as a Young Woman, Milly Hamilton, Ursula Mask.
David Ives, playwright, links the original three full-length German plays by Carl Sternheim. Originally called ‘Aus dem burgerlichen Heldenleben, or ‘From the Heroic Lives of the Middle Classes,’ they have been reimagined as a three-act work where the arc of the Mask family’s life is examined at seminal moments. They don’t really add a lot to the canon of work written about the angst of the middle verging on upper classes, but they do provide a lot of laughs and a fair amount of biting wit on capitalistic values.
Alexander Dodge brings each segment into gorgeous life with the sets. The first is reminiscent of The Honeymooners in its depiction of an apartment that is a toehold in the lower middle classes. The second set, for ‘The Partner’ segment is a stylized office in a blue-blood firm of money managers—the paneling is dark and luscious and the furnishings appropriately serious. Finally, in ‘The Profit,’ the set is starkly modern and luxurious with a stunning backdrop of sea and sand, set in California. When the snake (which has been slowly making its way from India to California for 50 years) finally appears is a real shocker—and it’s only shown for a moment. This harbinger that has been mentioned throughout the play really does look like the end of the world.
Kudos also to Frank Labovitz for the costume design—they are pitch perfect for each setting and beautifully tailored.
This is a fun show to watch and moves quickly–clocking in at nearly two hours without an intermission—but you don’t mind. While you might not remember the play after a week or so, the performances are delicious and it’s just zany enough to be a very nice way to destress after a week of working.
Show Advisory: Some language, discussions about sex and/or the lack thereof.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
“The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class” runs from December 4 – January 6, 2019, at Lansburgh Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.