Two words can virtually sum up the best reason for seeing the revival of Marc Camoletti's vintage French farce "Boeing-Boeing."
Unfortunately, neither of those two words is Boeing - they are Mark Rylance, one of Britain's leading classic actors making his far too long delayed Broadway debut.
As for "Boeing-Boeing" itself, which crash-landed last night at the Longacre Theatre, this always feeble piece now seems like a clever European plot for Airbus-Airbus.
The story twists frenetically around a once accepted belief in the infallible accuracy of airline schedules. This nowadays ridiculous supposition is essential to how the play's hero, Bernard (Bradley Whitford of "West Wing" fame), an American architect living in Paris, conducts his love life.
This involves concurrent affairs with three fiancée/airline hostesses - one from TWA, Gloria (Kathryn Hahn), one from Alitalia, Gabriella (Gina Gershon) and one from Lufthansa, Gretchen (Mary McCormack).
Also running around this whirligig of tired ethnic jokes and slamming doors are Christine Baranski as Berthe, Bernard's long-suffering maid and Rylance as Robert, his long-lost school friend, a sad-sack hayseed from Wisconsin, no less.
Luckily, no one thought of cheese jokes.
The play translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, wackily spins its revolving fiancées - each in on one plane and out on the next - until fickle fate finds them all in Paris together. Disaster time!
When I saw this revival, staged by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell, in London last summer, I thought it was terrible, but Rylance had already left the cast, and I was assured by some that he had made a terrific difference.
He does make a terrific difference. And it's still terrible - as repetitious and as tedious as a flea circus.
Rylance is an astonishing actor, and his command of that stock farce figure, the stupid acrobatic clown who always makes out, offers delight in every sound and grimace that emerge from him. I'd love to see him in Feydeau.
But the whole cast, particularly the agile Whitford and a beautifully acidulated Baranski, as the game but aging French maid, prove to be accomplished farceurs. The problem is they don't have much of a farce to be accomplished in.
The playbill triumphantly tells us that the original production in the Sixties ran in London for seven years. What it doesn't add is that the Broadway production in 1965 only clocked up 43 performances.
“Boeing Boeing,” a creaky French comedy that has been given the makeover of the season by the director Matthew Warchus, has no earthly right to be as funny as it is. I mean, think about it. A loud slapstick romp about a roué with three mistresses, born from the middle-class side of the Smirky ’60s, that might as well be called “Too Many Stewardesses” (though “Boeing Boeing” is winceable enough)? Ugh.
New Yorkers turned up their noses the first time this Marc Camoletti farce came to town in 1965, and it lasted on Broadway for a mere 23 performances. Never mind that they loved it in London, where it ran for seven years. The British have an annoying weakness for such things. You know, shows with titles like “Run for Your Wife.”
The production that opened Sunday night at the newly refurbished Longacre Theater is tricked out in thoroughly Mod ’60s style, but this latest edition of a play named for an aircraft soars right out of its time zone and into some unpolluted stratosphere of classic physical comedy. Propelled by the same gusty spirit that animated Commedia dell’Arte and the silent films of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, the happy cast led by Mark Rylance, Bradley Whitford and Christine Baranski may be earthy, but it’s seldom earthbound.
Here’s the setup (and bear with me). Bernard (Mr. Whitford), an American businessman living in Paris, is juggling love affairs with three air hostesses (as they were called back in the day), who touch down briefly but lovingly in his apartment between flights. There’s Gloria (Kathryn Hahn), the American; Gabriella (Gina Gershon), the Italian; and Gretchen (Mary McCormack), the German.
Thanks to Bernard’s keen study of flight schedules and the efficiency of his grumbling Gallic housekeeper, Berthe (Ms. Baranski), his three mistresses have no inkling of one another’s existences. But collision is clearly in the cards. And on hand, to survey and sink into the resulting complications, is the unworldly Robert (Mr. Rylance, the British actor who starred in the London revival, in a priceless deadpan performance), Bernard’s boyhood friend, newly arrived from Wisconsin and as green as a Granny Smith apple.
Most people, on reading this synopsis, would see only period prurience, caked with unappetizing mold. (It feels appropriate that a film version starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis was publicized as “the big comedy of nineteen-sexty-sex.”) But Mr. Warchus, a British director known here for his lucid Broadway productions of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” and Sam Shepard’s “True West,” has X-ray vision that zeroes in on the bone structure of a play.
“Boeing Boeing,” it turns out, has great bones. “It’s geometrical,” says Bernard, explaining his impeccably organized love life to Robert. “So precise as to be almost poetic.” The same might be said of Mr. Warchus’s mise-en-scène, which keeps us perpetually tuned into the idea of a geometry and its attendant equations.
That Euclidean spirit is translated most visibly into Rob Howell’s inspired set and costumes. Bernard’s high-ceilinged apartment has curved walls and many doors that you know will all be swinging wildly before the evening ends. Suspended from the ceiling are three decorative globes, each in a different color to match the uniform (and crucially, the flight bag) of each of Bernard’s lovers. And that’s just the most obvious manifestation of the precise color coding. (Love the red, yellow and blue roses.)
This bright, formulaically arranged environment matches the play’s tidy structure, a reassuring framework for all the untidy behavior that occurs within it. (That’s partly why you don’t feel that unpleasant “oh no” anxiety that is often induced by farce.) It allows the cast members to cut loose like preschoolers on the playground of their dreams. And like fond parents, we can enjoy their shenanigans while knowing that the slides and swing sets are too well-made for anyone to get seriously hurt.
Their performances are among the most one-dimensional and stereotyped that have ever shown up on a Broadway stage — and that’s a large part of their roaring success. Gloria, Gabriella and Gretchen bring to mind fantasy drawings from a vintage Esquire or Playboy for a portfolio of international dream girls.
And Ms. Hahn, Ms. Gershon and Ms. McCormack broadly but artfully exploit the most shameless nationalist clichés: the take-charge, health-obsessed American; the sentimental, lusty Italian; and, most hilariously, the dominating but thin-skinned German.
Ms. Baranski’s Berthe is a chic, black-clad philosopher, a French existentialist maid who loves nothing more than to complain. As for the guys, no matter how much they believe they’re running the show, they’re really uncomprehending men in a world where estrogen is always stronger than testosterone. (This version, by the way, turns Bernard and Robert from Frenchmen into Americans in Paris.)
At the performance I saw, the ensemble began a tad shakily, and I wondered if I had been a fool to enjoy the play as much as I did when I saw it in London last year. But as the show progressed, everyone shed self-consciousness and found a shared rhythm. The second act was unconditional bliss.
“Boeing Boeing,” translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, is not a play you quote from. It’s not what people say but how they move, from Bernard’s dancing hipster’s walk (which owes a debt to Steve Martin) to Ms. McCormack’s glorious Olympian strut and wide-legged, take-no-prisoners stance. Mr. Rylance, whom I know mostly as a Shakespearean actor (and as the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London), here exercises a supremely graceful clumsiness and hang-dog cheer that evokes the great Buster Keaton.
Though the performers have specific stage presence to burn, their characters are ultimately as abstract as figures in a ballet. The chemistry they generate among one another is less erotic than kinetic, despite scenes that involve blows to the groin, horizontal wrestling and tonsil hockey. (Watch Mr. Rylance probe his mouth to see if his tongue is still in place after receiving a high-suction kiss.)
You see, the appeal of “Boeing Boeing” is the very opposite of what you might expect. It’s not smutty at all. It’s deliciously, deliriously innocent. I haven’t felt so much like a child, while watching a sex comedy, since I was, well, a very young child, taken by his mother to the Billy Wilder movie “Some Like It Hot.”
Like Wilder’s masterpiece this production levitates low burlesque into high comedy. In a generous act of alchemy Mr. Warchus and company have distilled pure pleasure from an impure source.
The three women being juggled in "Boeing-Boeing" by an American Lothario in Paris are referred to not as flight attendants but by their more quaint denomination, air hostesses. That in itself indicates we're in a time warp. But PC police preparing to press charges of gender objectification should back off. These are no demure trolley dollies; they're bewitching sex amazons who rule even in chaos. It could have been a tired dollop of '60s camp in the wrong hands, but director Matthew Warchus and his sparkling cast fine-tune this fluffy French farce with clockwork precision, and the result is a riot.
The producing contingent deserves credit for taking a chance on this one. Despite its West End success, there were lots of reasons to suspect this revival of Marc Camoletti's 1962 comedy might not travel. A smash in its original run that played for 19 years in Paris and seven in London, it vanished after only 23 performances on Broadway in 1965. The same year, it spawned a strained Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis movie that had the shelf life of yogurt. But if the paroxysms of laughter gripping the Longacre audience offer any gauge, this incarnation should stick around considerably longer.
Warchus sets the frothy tone with a pre-show string of '60s French pop covers while lighting designer Hugh Vanstone gets the white curtain pulsing with a succession of day-glo colors before being raised to reveal Rob Howell's cream-on-cream Paris apartment living room, its curved wall interrupted by seven doors. It takes a while to get those doors swinging, and like all farces, this one functions better after lift-off than while taxiing. But once the opening set-up is out of the way, Warchus leans steadily harder on the accelerator and the comedy rarely pauses for breath.
American architect Bernard (Bradley Whitford) clearly is sitting pretty in Paris, even if his full-time job seems to be coordinating arrival and departure times for his international harem of fiancées, including perky New Yorker Gloria (Kathryn Hahn), who flies for TWA, sultry Alitalia beauty Gabriella (Gina Gershon) and no-nonsense Lufthansa fraulein Gretchen (Mary McCormack). Bernard's disgruntled French maid Berthe (Christine Baranski) is a reluctant accomplice in keeping each woman unaware of the others and varying the menu to reflect their native cuisines.
When Bernard's old school chum Robert (Mark Rylance) comes to visit from Wisconsin, the unworldly rube at first seems intimidated by the parade of gorgeous girls and overwhelmed by his host's dizzying schedule. But, soon, delayed flights, unexpected turbulence and the increased turbo thrust of the new Super-Boeing engine conspire to throw off Bernard's carefully planned timetable. When all three girls turn up at once and mayhem ensues, Robert finds crafty ways to further his own romantic cause.
OK, so it's not exactly Moliere, but the breakneck pacing, the agonizing, close-call timing of all the comings and goings, the escalating outrageousness and the cast's breezy charms make it impossible not to be swept along. And while it usually requires more verbal complexity than physical dexterity to sustain this kind of featherweight comedy, Warchus and the ensemble do a remarkable job of keeping things at cruise speed for 2½ hours with no discernable lags.
Much of the success is due to the heart invested in the material, notably with Bernard's triple flames. Playing them as mile-high bimbos no doubt would have confined the audience's involvement to the well-oiled mechanics of the plot and not the characters. But Hahn, Gershon and McCormack -- poured by designer Howell into figure-hugging flight uniforms in the bold, contrasting colors of their respective airlines, and equipped with backcombed '60s hairdos and troweled-on, period-appropriate eye makeup -- all pull off the considerable feat of playing wildly exaggerated stereotypes with irresistible human touches and defining quirks.
Like Paris Hilton on steroids, Hahn initially seems like a standard-issue former cheerleader -- pushy, entitled and dazzlingly confident. But when Robert's attempt at covering the tracks of one of Gloria's rivals gives her the impression he's hiding some kinks under his woolly surface, her voracious sexual appetite threatens to devour everyone on stage. She also gets to spout some hilarious observations on how divorce and alimony help make America great and ensure a stable economy.
Channeling vintage Sophia Loren, her curves all but exploding out of her uniform, Gershon exudes love, desire, maternal warmth, petulant impatience and fiery anger in perfect measure -- sometimes all at once.
Scene-stealer McCormack is so passionately intense she's terrifying. Every exchange involving Gretchen is a bellowed interrogation as she strides around like a lady wrestler, sprinting across the stage (forward and backward) like an athlete right out of Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" or standing with legs akimbo, looking like she's about to launch a shot put. Her inflamed defense of the virtues of sauerkraut is priceless.
But while none of the women are slouches, the master of physical comedy here is Rylance, the one holdover from the production's London cast. Doing a flawless Wisconsin accent and digging deep into the Stan Laurel vaults for inspiration, he's like a coiled spring who can shrink at will into inconspicuousness or come suddenly, unpredictably alive with febrile energy, managing to stay in character through even the most outlandish collisions. With inexhaustible inventiveness, Rylance gives shape to Robert's sly blossoming from a meek, unsophisticated bystander into a man eager to remedy his romantic inexperience and not shy about partaking of his friend's female smorgasbord.
Despite being the catalyst for this circus, Bernard is in many ways a backseat role, though Whitford makes an appealing foil and frequently gets to let loose his lunatic side, skipping on air as he contemplates the bliss of his polygamous engagements or shuddering in horror every time a door flies open to reveal a fresh challenge.
Top-billed Baranski is still in the process of nailing her character but she's funny nonetheless as she grumbles and rants about the inconveniences she must endure. The casting of the actress as a long-suffering domestic is a droll joke in itself given that she's unlikely ever to have switched on a vacuum cleaner. But hiding Baranski's comic aplomb and brittle deadpan behind a bobbed wig, glasses and a thick French accent (she's the spitting image of superhero costumer Edna Mode in "The Incredibles") presents a challenge that she's still working to overcome.
There are other imperfections here such as some unnecessary clutter on one side of Howell's set -- the minimalist chic of two strategically placed Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs, a telephone and the forever-slamming doors are all that's required. But nothing sullies the enjoyment of Warchus' sprightly production or of the play's unexpected ingenuity at concocting an outcome that allows everyone to extricate themselves from the sticky mess without humiliation.
Icing on the cake is watching the cast share their almost improper enjoyment during the go-go curtain calls, choreographed by Kathleen Marshall with so much verve they almost make you forgive her for "Grease."