Okay, I admit it: I love a farce. There's something terrifically satisfying about all those slamming doors (English farce) and sexual innuendos (French farce), and when the two are blended, as in Marc Camoletti's 1962 comedy Boeing-Boeing, now being given a dizzying production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the results are delicious!
Interestingly, when the English translation opened on Broadway, Boeing-Boeing ran for only 23 performances; a subsequent film version starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis consigned the play to instant oblivion. In London (2007) and New York (2008), however, the play was revived to great acclaim, garnering two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards! This, for a play set in the "swinging sixties," when "lifestyle" wasn't even a word, in an era that would seem quaint to 21st century audience for whom it seems "anything goes."
Boeing-Boeing (the title refers to the ubiquitous aircraft used by an airline industry just coming of age) involves a swinging American playboy who manages to juggle his three beautiful" air hostess" fiancées with the help of flight schedules that appear to be written in stone. Each woman thinks she's the only one in his life, the mistress of his swanky Parisian apartment, his soon-to-be bride. That is, until the arrival of supersonic jet planes upends the schedules and an old school chum shows up and, in his Midwestern innocence, throws a wrench in the romantic works. A disdainful French maid attempts to keep a lid on the chaos, to little avail but to much hilarity.
What follows is a dramatic/comedic "dance" meticulously choreographed by director James Brennan (himself a former hoofer). For nearly two hours, six actors race around Ray Klausen's multi-level stage, up and down a pair of stairs, in and out of seven doorways (five with doors), and even vault over a railing with precision and grace—all the time looking natural. As Bernard, Matt Walton is the epitome of confident, suave ex-pat who is, he thinks, adept at compartmentalizing his life. Watching his aplomb crumble before our eyes is very droll. The three actresses who play the international harem adeptly convey their various nationalities with accents and body English. Heather Parcells (above center) is fine as the wise-cracking TWA stewardess although her accent is sometimes more Chicago than New Yawk. Brynn O'Malley's Alitalia hostess Gabriella (above left) is all about crackling jealousy and Italian fire. And as Lufthansa's Gretchen, Anne Horak (above right) brings down the house with her Ilsa Koch-like imperiousness and a delivery of English heavily laden with German enunciation (any word beginning with an s is pronounced as though it began with sh)! The three women are quite a sight to behold in their colorful iconic stewardess uniforms, and their behavior is like Pan Am on steroids.
But the two actors who literally steal the play out from under these four should be arrrested for committing a felony. As Robert Lambert, newly arrived in Paris from Wisconsin in an effort to find a mate, John Scherer (left) is a master of physical comedy. His naiveté about sophisticated French romance reduces playboy Bernard's life to a shambles; that he never acts maliciously makes his bumbling all the more endearing. He's especially hilarious in a scene when, after having eaten sauerkraut, his flatulence becomes almost musical and funny in a middle-school way. Beth Leavel (above right) as Berthe the maid aids and abets Scherer in the dramatic theft. Looking nothing like her usual glamorous self, Leavel wears a face—nay, the demeanor—of Gallic condescension that is almost palpable. And the way she draws out her final syllables and long, rolling r's adds to the merriment. Waddling up and down the stairs and dressed in a frumpy uniform and fright wig, she's a magnetic field to be reckoned with. Sacre bleu!
Brian Hemesath is to be commended for his costume design; nothing is too elaborate but all is perfectly appropriate. Bettie O. Rogers' hair and wig design further helps set the scene: Gloria wears her red hair in a flip, raven-tressed Gabriella wears a bob and Gretchen's blonde up-do is the perfect perch for her blue stewardess's cap. And Randy Hansen's sound wings us back to the era, with Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon" and Herb Alpert's "Casino Royale" played before the curtain rises and during intermission. (Above L-R: Matt Walton, Brynn O’Malley, Heather Parcells, Anne Horak, Beth Leavel and John Scherer.)
Boeing-Boeing succeeds exceedingly well as farce, so naturally, I loved it. Retro? You bet. Quaint. Sure. But hilarious and entertaining? Absolutely. Should you go to see it? Of course. And be prepared to laugh your you-know-what off. Mon dieu!
Boeing-Boeing will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through February 12. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.