Spirited, Dexterous Performances Elicit Laughter in
Also see Bob's review of Gulf View Drive
Bernard, an American ex-pat playboy living in a flat near Paris' Orly Airport, is visited by a nerdy old college buddy from Wisconsin whom he hasn't seen in almost twenty years. When Robert mentions that he is intending to marry, not so much out of desire, but in order to avail himself of the social benefits, Bernard tells him, "if you have to get married, get married my way ... polygamy."
Bernard has three air hostess "fiancées" living with him, each of whom thinks that she is the only one. The stews are from three different airlines, so they will never meet, and have schedules which bring them to Paris for two alternating consecutive days each week. Of course, on this particular day, the American stew is scheduled to take off after breakfast, the Italian is scheduled to have just time enough time to stay for lunch, and the German is scheduled to arrive in time for dinner. It is abundantly clear that Bernard's arrangement is about to blow up in his face. In short order, each stewardess will announce that her airline is replacing her plane with a faster jet, which will change her schedule and bring her to Paris more frequently.
Bernard's arrangement is abetted by Berthe, his harassed and overwhelmed French housekeeper. Berthe changes the photographs and decor in the bedroom, and adjusts her menus to please the meal preferences of each stewardess.
The fiancées' schedules are adjusted throughout this day with the result that their appearances at the flat overlap and farcical complications abound as Bernard, Robert and Berthe do everything possible to preserve Bernard's arrangements. It is unlikely to bother many that no one is acting logically, for it is apparent that the jig is up from early on in the first act.
Most of the day, Bernard is far from the flat, keeping one or another of his fiancées away. The play focuses on Robert and his interactions with the women. While dealing with these overwrought females, and, in total abnegation of the shy, prudish persona which is established for him in the play's first moments, Robert aggressively comes on to each of them with a fervor that is at least equal to his efforts to perpetuate Bernard's charade.
Boeing-Boeing trades heavily in misogynistic and xenophobic humor. The vessels for much of this humor are Bernard's trio of shrews ... uh, I mean, stews. All are aggressive Amazonian women. First up is the American Gloria whose New York accent is as bizarre as her taste for pancakes with whipped cream. Gloria tells us that "where I come from women give the orders." She adds that American men "can be worked to death" as they always say yes because of their desire to please. Next is the quick to anger and passionate Italian Gabriella. Somehow the perpetually suspicious and jealous Gabriella has not only never cottoned onto Bernard's set up, but she is convinced that he is a "classic" one-woman man. Last is the most bizarre and intense of the three, the German Gretchen. Upon her arrival, she plants a long and passionate kiss on Berthe. Gretchen unaccountably switches so often between threatening Germanic accusatory questioning to uncontrolled sexual aggression that it is difficult to hold on to just what she may be all about. The extended flatulence routine (complete with high decibel sound effects), which John Scherer playing Robert has to perform after eating Gretchen's beloved sauerkraut, would give great pleasure to any unsophisticated pre-adolescent boy. Amidst all of this, Robert says to Gretchen, "You are really very pretty for a German girl."
The reliable, ubiquitous Beth Leavel pours so much physical and vocal energy into the role of Berthe that one wonders how she can possibly do it eight times a week even for this limited run. Leavel thoroughly captures and conveys Berthe's dry and droll sense of humor. Playwright Marc Camoletti and adaptor Beverley Cross have given the discontented Berthe a sense of humor, and, at least as performed here by Leavel, Berthe seems to be one of those people who enjoy being crusty and ill-tempered.
John Scherer plays Robert as a self-satisfied fella who misguidedly is delighted by what he sees as his own audacity and cleverness with agility and charm. Camoletti has Robert behave as needed for each confrontation/comedy routine so that there is little possibility of a through, dimensional portrayal. Matt Walton does solid work as Bernard, the farce's good-looking, mostly straight man. Walton proves to be no slacker when farcical opportunities do come his way.
Heather Parcells (Gloria), Brynn O'Malley (Gabriella) and Anne Horak (Gretchen) each pull all the stops out with over the top, high decibel, farcical portrayals. Even Gabriella, who seems to be the only one of three written with any warmth, is sometimes an angry shrew. It is hard to judge whether or not more nuanced portrayals might make this trio more fun, or, on the other hand, less farcically amusing. Parcells, O'Malley and Horak, skillfully and in step together, deliver what has been asked of them.
The attractive, tastefully designed two-level set is the work of Ray Klausen. Cutouts of over half a dozen Parisian landmarks above the ceiling attractively adorn the stage.
The best farces have believable set-ups, and, characters, who even in their buffoonery, have something real at stake that makes us care about them. They also have witty, funny dialogue which provides ballast for the physical hi-jinks, and entrances, exits and slamming doors which distinguish this rarified form of comic playwriting. Still, Boeing-Boeing does provide a large and unrelenting series of farcical episodes, and director James Brennan has managed to come up with a phalanx of physical comedy routines for them which require a physical dexterity from the cast which proves both impressive and disarming. These dedicated and fearless actors, led by Beth Leavel and John Scherer, do not let up until they have put a smile on the face of the most resistant theatergoer. Given the increasing level of laughter heard at Paper Mill throughout the performance of Boeing-Boeing, that theatergoer may well be yours truly.
Boeing-Boeing continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through February 12, 2012, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Boeing-Boeing by Mario Camoletti Translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans/ Directed by James Brennan