“All I knew was that I wanted a cast of kooks,” says Anthony Gooley during a break in his rehearsals for a new production of American comedian Steve Martin’s The Underpants.
“I wanted the kind of people who make the left-of centre choices. I wanted fruitcakes.”
There is no shortage of comically adept actors in Sydney, says Gooley, who is directing The Underpants for the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre.
“We’ve got great talents in this city, but I think The Underpants needs people who can turn on a dime, so to speak. Actors who can be funny one second and incredibly truthful and poignant the next. I think that’s the key to the play; a mix of absurdity and heart.”
Martin’s script is freely adapted from a 1910 satire Die Hose by the German writer Carl Sternheim.
The story is set in motion when Louise, the wife of Theo, a minor bureaucrat in the hidebound civil service of pre-WWI Germany, accidentally drops her drawers in public. An elastic fail can happen to anyone. But unfortunately for Louise, the timing couldn’t be worse: her knickers hit the deck just as the Kaiser’s coach is passing by.
It just so happens that Louise and Theo are looking for boarders to fill the spare room in their apartment. Two men show up in the aftermath of Louise’s exposure, each hoping to rent the room. Both were witnesses to Louise’s embarrassment – and both are consumed by lust for her.
Gooley’s cast of “kooks” are Gabrielle Scawthorn (Louise), Duncan Fellows (Theo), Ben Gerrard and Robin Goldsworthy (the hopeful boarders), Beth Daley and Tony Taylor.
“They all just feel like the perfect fit,” says Gooley. “The Underpants is the best and most eclectic collection of comic characters in the one place I’ve come across since the Cohen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. I was laughing the first time I read it and it’s so rare to find a comedy that gets you right off the page like that.”
Laughs aside, there are some serious things to ponder in The Underpants, Gooley adds.
“The more I read it, the more I saw in it,” he says. “Martin addresses a lot of things going on in the world right now, particularly conversations between the genders about courtship and desire and consent and what is appropriate behaviour. It even speaks to the world of social media by looking at the fleeting nature of attraction and what it means to be attractive or desired in a sensationalist culture.
“If you want to get really deep, then it’s also about the way conservative societies put women’s sexuality under control but I’m not planning to slap the audience across the face with those things. It’ll be there but quite elegantly.”
Gooley is a familiar face to Sydney theatergoers. As an actor he has earned acclaim for some very serious roles, including that of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and as Rochester in The Libertine.
His comic chops bubble up in unexpected places: in the unhinged Sam Byck in the musical Assassins, and in the charismatic figure of Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example.
“The indie theatre scene in Sydney can get a little heavy, sometimes,” Gooley says. “I love all that serious stuff but now and again, you want to have a crack at an out-and-out comedy.”
Gooley’s comic heroes are diverse: Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey and Ricky Gervais.
“Blackadder was huge for me as a young guy. Atkinson has a masterful control of language and there’s nothing he can’t seem to do with his face and his body.
Carrey impressed me for his sheer physical elasticity and absurdity. And Gervais … he seemed to invent a whole new kind of comedy when he did David Brent’s opening speech in The Office. I remember thinking, ‘God, this guy’s doing something I’ve never seen before’.”
MY COMIC HERO
I grew up on Big Girls Blouse and Fast Forward from a very young age – possibly too young. As a family we would watch the new episode each week and my brother and I would re-enact it for the next week. We were not selective with our audience either. Parents, teachers, council workers and unsuspecting passers-by got my Gina Riley impression.
Gina Riley and Jane Turner have direct access to my funny bone. And when I watched Nannette earlier this year by Hannah Gadsby my world turned. What a woman.
Really tough to isolate a winner here but I love John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch and Matt Berry for his mega voice, acting, writing, and lovely tunes. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Alison Bell, who’s a flat-out genius for comedy and l love comedian-actors who smash out multiple characters that respond to new situations – Dave Chapelle, Barry Humphries, Paul Whitehouse, Sacha Baron Cohen and Magda Szubanski.
My comic hero would have to be Catherine O’Hara. Every creation is pure genius. All her roles in the Christopher Guest movies, Curb Your Enthusiasm and now Schitt’s Creek. She’s pure madness – such a delightful mix of the tragic and pure imagination. The scene where she drunkenly wards off paparazzi after failing to get an Oscar Nomination in For Your Consideration is probably my acting masterclass. I’ve watched it 373 times.
Far and away above all others … Alec Guinness. To most, he is best-known for being mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. But his career as a character actor in many, often black and white, English films is how I ‘met’ him as a young boy.
His Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s adaption of Dickens’ Great Expectations is so richly detailed and wistfully funny, especially in the scene where he insists on boxing with Pip, getting repeatedly bonked, bloodied and downed, but happily yielding to defeat and as content and relaxed as if he had just been in a fight with cream buns.
His triumph is playing seven doomed members of an aristocratic family, including a dowager duchess, in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Each is a finely crafted jewel. His voice finds different timbres and tones and his embrace of wigs, dentures, prosthetics and insane costumes is something I miss both in film and onstage. He plays hilarious people with tragedy in their veins. He is my lighthouse.
In my youth my friends forced me to watch a lot of Mel Brooks films. Every night out ended up on someone’s couch watching yet another one with everyone quoting whole chunks of dialogue along with it. Except me.
But when Madeline Kahn appeared on that screen I was in awe. Pure class. No matter how ridiculous the situation or how large her character choice, she played it with nuance, subtlety and restraint.
The level of realism and depth in her comedy amazed me. And she was incredibly musical. I once got hold of a bootleg recording of her Broadway performance in On The Twentieth Century, which is a really tricky operetta sing and she nailed it.
The comic detail and the pathos in song and dialogue was brilliant and the laughter and applause from that audience is deafening. Apparently she pulled out of the show a week after opening because she didn’t think she was good enough. Jesus.
My first comedic love was Cary Grant. I must have seen His Girl Friday at least 50 times. He was so wonderfully deft and idiosyncratic and really at the end of the day, the man was straight up cool AF. I idolised him. Then there was Rowan Atkinson … I memorised the entirety of Rowan Atkinson Live and most Mr Bean sketches and every chance I got, I would bust them out for anyone I could corner.
My love of physical comedy and clowning 100 per cent started with that man’s genius. The Simpsons? Jim Carrey? Shut up. Loved them. At the end of the day, I’ve just always dug funny. Best way to spend your time.
The Underpants plays in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, from October 31