Reviewed by David Spencer
When you could see Jack, Chrissy and Janet on Three's Company, the Bundy family on Married With Children, or, on a higher plane, watch the romantic sparring between Sam and Diane on Cheers, what could possibly tempt you to have much the same experience at Broadway prices? Which is why the genre of “sex comedy,” —both the situation and farce variety—has pretty much disappeared from the Broadway landscape: for decades now, it has been usurped by television.
So the re-emergence of sex comedy as a Broadway genre—if only in the guise of a one-off revival by way of London—can't be treated merely as a casual theatrical staple. It has to be a cultural statement, something of an event, and a nudge-nudge/wink-wink throwback to its mid-60s era. At least you’d think so by the standard of Boeing Boeing, making its new millennium appearance at the Longacre Theatre.
For all the complications that ensue, the plot is pretty simple: Bernard (Bradley Whitford) is a bachelor who lives near Orly airport, Paris, and has three international stewardess girlfriends—an American (Kathryn Hahn), an Italian (Gina Gershon) and a German (Mary McCormack)—each of whom thinks she's the one and only. Bernard's "bible" is the bound schedule of airline flights, knowledge of which allows him to have juggled the trio of relationships successfully for months, aided and abetted by his sardonic house servant (Christine Baranski). But due to weather glitches, the complex scheduling that keeps all the balls in the air falls apart on the day that his friend Robert (Mark Rylance), a shy and slightly goofy provincial, pays a visit to his Flat of Many Doors (seven, all leading off the open, high ceiling living room set), and is unexpectedly thrust into a household saturated with panic and unrequited sex.
Debuting in France in 1960, the farce by Marc Carmoletti (an unknown comic playwright here, a prolific and award-winning legend there) was adapted to English by Beverly Cross (the current revival has had additional tweaking done by Francis Evans, working from a literal translation by Christ Campbell). It became a worldwide sensation, running in London for over 2,000 performances.
But it wasn't remotely an American hit. It arrived on Broadway in 1965, not just its British production, but its British replacement cast—and bounced-bounced after 23 performances. (The leads on Broadway were played by Gerald Harper [Brit TV's Adam Adamant] as the playboy, and Ian Carmichael [known for playing sweetly goofy character parts] as the best friend. For the record, their opening night London predecessors had been Patrick Cargill [best known to us here as a rather brutal Number Two in two episodes of The Prisoner] and David Tomlinson [the father in the Disney film of Mary Poppins], respectively. If you Google all of them, chances you'll recognize at least three of the four.) There's very little documentation surviving about all this, and it's impossible to know, or even guess, why lightning didn't strike on Broadway back then.
But in an interview prior to the London opening of this new revival, director Matthew Warchus stated that he discovered the piece while watching the US film version on TV, and thought it was not only charming, but a farce that could finally claim the status of a classic.
Whether or not he's right, this nutty little confection has survived all kinds of deliveries for nearly half a century, from streamlined and expert to chaotic, and been filmed internationally at least four times: first in France, next (as mentioned) in Hollywood (a mediocre film starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis), followed in the 80s by a mind-bendingly inept but hugely successful Bollywood (India) version (the clips are on YouTube, see for yourself), and then yet another version in Dutch for Netherlands television.
Will the new staging catch fire on Broadway?
Well, there are two ways I've ever seen farce successfully approached. The first is nimbly, with a deceptive ease of delivery, the encroaching madness and hysteria achieved in increments—the more expert your players at high, low and verbal comedy, and the savvier the director about small nuances of timing, the better. (Most first class productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum tend to strike the required balance.) The second is sheer insistence: with a cast that is by and large not expert at farce, at least not across the board, but smart enough to know where the jokes are, adept enough to deliver the physical bits in tempo, and a director who is likewise not masterful at comedy, but understands energy and pace and how to stay out of the play's way. The second, for me, is a harder sell, because it means most performing hands will tend to hit their "funny" hard and loud, the decibel level tending to stay high, keeping me conscious of just how hard everyone is working (farce is strenuous). But finally, the charm of the actors, the noble intention of the production team, an undeniable professionalism and my own grudging admiration for the effort wear me down and I give in. A little late and a little exhausted, but finally.
That, to me, is the category this new rendering of Boeing Boeing lands in. With one exception, virtually all of the cast attack their roles, almost as if afraid their jobs might escape were they to release their choke holds on them. Surprisingly, the exception is not Christine Baranski, normally one of the sharpest mistresses of the comic flourish—she in fact seems rather constrained by her Monty Pythonesque outrageous French accent (a device that Rhea Perlman, during her tenure in the London company, did not employ [see the promotional video on YouTube], nor her replacement, Jean Marsh, who reportedly went Cockney). Nor is the exception Bradley Whitford, despite having proved so many times with witty Aaron Sorkin dialogue—in both the astonishing West Wing and the heartbreaking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—that he has the innate knack for the easy lob. Nor is the exception any of the three babe-alicious stewardesses (all of whom are prominent and ubiquitous enough film and TV presences to be considered stars)—though perhaps Mary McCormack, as the Teutonic maiden with the storm-trooper disposition shouldn't be; although even her barking of orders might have been shaded a bit more. (That said, she’s a clear audience favorite.)
No, the exception—and the revelation—is British import Mark Rylance, who created his role on the West End. As the playboy's buddy, he affects an astonishingly believable American accent (the text of this version claims his home as Wisconsin) and the deft physicality of a master clown like Bill Irwin. For voice and demeanor, he goes the slightly spaced out route; though costumed with nerdy, precise conservatism, his character seems almost always a little abstracted, as if vaguely high and only a visitor to this dimension. And as an actor Rylance seems to have borrowed from a number of comic actors who have mastered the strange, befuddled, slightly constipated, ethereally singsong delivery that defines an air of surreality, such as Paul Sand, Tommy Smothers, Bobcat Goldthwait, Frank Fontaine...It's an eccentric layer to have added to the character, and I must say, the text doesn't completely support it, but then, we're talking about Boeing Boeing, not The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
Act Two, happily, is easier to take than act one, because the escalation of complication more complements the high-intensity assault on the material, and it is there that Mr. Whitford almost rises to the level of his partner, because it is there that—ironically—he has occasion to pause for breath...to do a "hold" take of consternation...to furrow his brow in furious thought while he thinks of the next lie...to blink like a deer in the headlights, not only with the "car" of disaster almost on him, but when it races past, leaving him stunned to be, however temporarily, unwounded.
I should also report that if the audience with which I attended is any indication whatsoever, my slow willingness to giver over is not something universally shared. Maybe it's a function of the era in which we live, and this kind of mindless laugh-machine being needed, maybe it's just a gleeful response to an infectious gestalt, maybe any number of things as equally indefinable toward analyzing success in 2008 that eluded the play in 1965—but the crowd had a rollicking good time right from Minute One. I had an unusually clear parallax view of one particular young lady in the front row who beheld each new wrinkle with genuine open-mouthed awe, as if, in the best sense, it was not to be believed that something so silly could just keep getting sillier.
Almost as silly as my spending this much time analyzing the event. Strange that something so frothy could so deeply fascinate...