Boeing Boeing is a very silly play with a very silly title. It is not a great play; it may not even be a good play. Its 50-year-old European style of winking, bum-pinching naughtiness has long since gone the way of playboy cartoons and Benny Hill; now we have meta-comedy, anti-comedy, and whatever it is that Adult Swim is called. Still, farce is forever, and the skilled clowns of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre have managed to inflate the vintage script with that weightless intoxicant that reduces audiences to helpless hilarity (especially the guy who sat behind me: I swear I could feel his gale-force guffaws ventilating the back of my head all evening).
The fun of a classic farce is in watching social norms gradually collapse into total mayhem. “It’s mathematical; perfect geometry,” says swinging bachelor Bernard to his visiting friend Robert, about his scheme to bed three airplane hostesses serially as each one is on the ground while the others are in the air. This is something no actual American would ever say (the script shows telltale signs of its translation from the French), but it does prove to be spectacularly hubristic. As little cracks begin to appear in his scheme, its perfect Euclidean geometry begins to warp; as things escalate from close calls to utter insanity, it turns positively fractal. Playing Bernard, Brian J. Gill has the most difficult role, more than a bit douchebaggy as he concocts one lie after another to keep his three fiancées from catching on. His ears seem to stand out further and further as he descends into full panic mode and his inevitable reckoning approaches (we can’t wait). The thee girlfriends, each from a different nation, are played by wonderful, gorgeous actresses: Samantha Sostarich as the German Gretchen seems the most comic natural: game for anything, she blends the stereotypes of domineering and wildly romantic into a character both outsized and appealingly vulnerable. Amber Smith as the lovely Italian Gabriella seems most in control, and therefore is least funny; while Anne Walaszek as Gloria at first appears to be not much more than a voluptuous body and a Brooklyn accent, but when she spreads her self-actualized American wings, she’s a sheer delight.
The character who lets go the most has the most fun, and here it’s the limber, loose-limbed Ryan Schabach as the “friend from Wisconsin.” As his loyalty compels him to adopt pretense after pretense to keep his friend’s scheme from collapsing, he takes on strange and unfamiliar roles that begin to blur and fugue; he discovers odd new feelings that neither he nor we can find names for: his look when he finds himself wearing a ladies’ travel bag filled with intimate items, and owns the identity, is priceless. But the real hero of the show is Marcella Kearns as Bernard’s stoic French housekeeper. Master of the monotone, the basset hound’s mournful gaze, and the Gallic shrug, she embodies ten centuries of French yeomanry indulging the whims of flaky aristocrats. With impeccable timing, she uses her servant’s swinging door like the rim shot to the comedian’s one-liner.
There’s no question that we wouldn’t be seeing this show if not for the canniness of some London producers who realized that it would take off with the comic genius of a world-class actor like Milwaukee’s own Mark Rylance; it did, winning it (and him) Tony awards. Still, Boeing Boeing‘s puerile premise—one rich dude juggling three girlfriends in a swinging bachelor pad—calls up uncomfortable associations with smarmy Dominique Strauss-Kahn types, so the producers have a tricky line to walk. Here, director Michael Cotey proves his mettle, not only coming up with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever shtick, but also subtly shifting the tone and turning up the cartoonishness (folks here still remember fondly his subtle work with Youngblood Theatre, such as Spirits to Enforce and Cartoon) to a point where none but a PC fanatic could take it seriously. The unfortunate side effect is that, at least on opening night, the cast seemed to be trying so hard to be funny it was kind of exhausting. Also, for all his inventiveness, Cotey might still have to learn how to “kill his darlings:” a two-plus hour running time is awfully long for a farce, and some of the gags—such as an ill-advised bit of business with a hot dog—might have seemed hilarious in rehearsal, but simply don’t get enough mileage for the time they consume. Not to worry: the cast really are wonderful comedians; they will only get better as they relax and learn the show’s rhythms in front of audiences.
Although Boeing Boeing begins as a male adolescent fantasy, the women characters all end up getting their way, and the men, submitting to them, win too—just like in real life. But while the two bros are barred from their respective betrothed’s bedrooms at the end, they still have each other in a charming grace-note finish. All that’s left is the curtain call dance number, where we submit our applause to the hard-working players. We might leave the theater not much wiser, but as in all comedy, order is restored. Maybe the old script has something going for it after all.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents
by Marc Camoletti
translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans
running through August 30
Cabot Theatre, Broadway Theatre Center
For tickets call 414-291-7800,
or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com