Anthony Gooley is an award-winning actor whose recent credits include the role of Eddie Carbone in the Iain Sinclair-helmed production of A View From The Bridge, Wild Bill Hickock in the national tour of Calamity Jane, and Samuel Byck in the encore season of Assassins at the Sydney Opera House.
But Gooley has also worn the director’s hat on a couple of occasions and is now doing so again, this time for Sugary Rum Productions’ staging of Steve Martin’s The Underpants at Sydney’s Seymour Centre. An adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 German farce Die Hose, it’s a crazy satire that’s set to have audiences laughing out loud.
Gooley tells Theatre People he’s wanted to direct the Steve Martin-penned piece for some time.
“I thought I might like to try to direct a comedy because I love performing in comedies, but I don’t get the chance to do them as much as I would like,” he says. “I thought I’d set myself the challenge of a comedy, as it would be a completely different genre to anything I’d directed before, and I knew I was after something with a certain level of quirk and eccentricity.”
Gooley asked a friend for recommendations.
“He said to me, ‘Have you heard of The Underpants by Steve Martin?’ My eyes lit up and I said, ‘No I have not heard of The Underpants by Steve Martin, but there is a lot to like about that sentence.’”
Gooley read the play and immediately knew he had found what he was after.
“It was this incredibly idiosyncratic comic chamber piece, set in Dusseldorf in 1910. There are six to seven comic characters in it that I thought were the best and most eclectic mix of comic characters that I’d seen in the one space since the Cohen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It was the sort of thing that I wanted to be in, so I thought it was the one. It was my sense of humour to a tee, and it had the right mix of crassness and sophistication and smut and wit.”
Gooley has been looking for a home to bring The Underpants to the stage for more than three years. Last year, Gus Murray’s Sugary Rum Productions came on board as producer. Established only last year, Sugary Rum is quickly making a name for itself in the Sydney theatre scene, having produced The View UpStairs at Hayes Theatre Co, Jess and Joe Forever at Belvoir, and Anatomy of a Suicide at the Old Fitz.
“Gus is a real mover and a shaker,” Gooley says. “He’s fantastic … Gus coming on board instantly gave it a lot more legitimacy.”
The Underpants tells the story of Louise and Theo Markes, a conservative couple who find themselves in an existential crisis when Louise’s bloomers fall down in public while watching the King’s parade. Theo thinks he will lose his job as a government clerk, but events don’t transpire as expected.
“In terms of the comedy, it does have elements of farce, it has elements of satire, but it’s an incredibly lovely mix of absurdity and heart and innocence, which I think is Steve Martin, really,” Gooley says. “He’s obviously an incredibly off-the-wall performer, particularly his early stand-up stuff, but he’s got a very poetic soul too. He’s a beautiful writer – he’s written novellas and novels, plays, and he’s a musician. He’s got such an artistic soul and I think that really shines through in the play because, while it is very funny, there are also real moments of tenderness and pathos, which I think audiences will be quite moved by when they see them because they strike you unawares when they come about.”
He continues: “I think in adapting it for the contemporary audience, Martin has found some things about it that really sing. Initially, when I read it, my reasons for wanting to do it were very superficial … But the more and more I read it, the more I saw that there is actually a lot about it that makes it quite interesting to stage now. There are questions about masculinity and the kinds of conversations that are going on at the moment about courtship, desire and what it means to be attractive and desired and what it means to be attractive in a sensationalist culture.”
But, make no mistake, The Underpants is a comedy.
“At the end of the day, this is a big, fun, bawdy romp, and that’s what people should expect,” Gooley says. “But these other themes that I’m mentioning … Martin doesn’t – and I certainly won’t be looking to – slap the audience across the face with these, but they do sit there amongst the comedy quite nicely.”
The cast of The Underpants features Beth Daly, Ben Gerrard, Robin Goldsworthy, Tony Taylor, Duncan Fellows and Gabrielle Scawthorn.
“I’ve got such a wonderfully kooky and dextrous group of comic actors,” Gooley says.
And what is he enjoying most about being in the rehearsal room for this production?
“The kind of left-field choices that people are making,” he says. “I was always after fruitcakes [and] weirdos when casting this. There’s funny and then there are people who make really left of centre choices and you think, ‘Wow! Where did that one come from?’
“I hope other people find it as funny as I do.”
Photo credit: David Hooley
STEVE MARTIN’S THE UNDERPANTS – SEASON DETAILS
VENUE: Seymour Centre, Sydney
DATES: Playing now until 23 November 2019
TIMES: Tuesday – Saturday, 7.30pm; Saturday 2pm
TICKETS: Full $49; Concession $43; Under 30 $43; Cheap Tuesday $40; Groups 8+ $40
BOOKINGS: https://www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-underpants/ or 02 9351 7940