First, some perspective. When the French farce Boeing-Boeing was first translated in 1962 for London audiences it was hugely popular. It ran for seven years. Not so stateside.
The play opened on Broadway in ‘65 and lasted for only 23 performances. Part of the problem may have been the initial translation by Alan Beverley Cross. It was certainly faithful to French playwright Marc Camoletti’s original script, but being faithful also meant maintaining the nationalities of the two male leads, Bernard and Robert. They remained French, resulting in characters speaking English throughout but with comical sounding Pepé le Pew French accents. While the play enjoyed global success – to date it remains the most performed French play around the world – it wouldn’t be until 2007 when the Matthew Warchus directed production received a London revival, then transferred to Broadway a year later.
The difference between the sixties version and the 2007 revival was the translation. Beverley Cross, as he was more commonly known, passed away in 1998, but with some additional translation from Francis Evans with new updates on nationalities, Bernard became an American who lives in Paris, while his friend Robert is an old school buddy who has just flown in from Wisconsin. And what a difference a forty year absence had on New York. The revival with its American leads was nominated for several Tonys, winning two; Best Revival of a Play and the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor, Mark Rylance as Robert, who was also in the London production.
This past weekend saw the opening of Scottsdale’s Desert Stages Theatre new production of Boeing-Boeing. Unlike the Phoenix Theatre presentation of just over 6 years ago where the leads remained French, Desert Stages has gone for the update, and it works perfectly fine.
American playboy, Bernard (Paul Hartwell, appropriately slick) has an apartment in Paris not far from Orly Airport which he shares with his three fiancées, except there’s an issue. None of the women are aware of the other. They’re all stewardesses working for separate airlines with separate timetables. “It’s the ideal life,” Bernard declares. “Pleasure, variety, it’s fabulous.” As long as Bernard can keep track of the individual schedules, there’s no reason he can’t balance his time between the women.
With the reluctant aid of his acid-tongued French housekeeper, Berthe (a very funny and thickly-accented Virginia Olivieri for opening weekend, then Cat Hartmen for the remainder of the run) all that needs to change is the portrait on the wall, the dinner menu for individual tastes, and Bernard’s life is made. “You get all the advantages of married life with none of the drawbacks” the modern day lothario explains. “Fiancées are much friendlier than wives.” Then an old friend from Wisconsin, Robert (director Rick Davis doing double-duty) makes a surprise visit, resulting in a day that begins well then quickly spirals out of control.
Boeing-Boeing’s farcical formula develops just as you would and should expect; an unlikely, even absurd situation that sounds somewhat plausible is calmly presented then soon erupts into a frantic paced comedy, one full of physical humor, mistaken notions, and ludicrous, frenzied action where one broadly realized character rushes out of a door stage left as another enters through another door stage right, and so on. Despite possessing a plot that races out of control so fast it’s in danger of actually taking flight, somehow in the final few minutes, all the knots become untangled, all the mistakes are rectified, and everyone leaves happy… sort of.
Director Davis has his 6 person cast use the limited space of Desert Stages’ smaller 58 seater Actor’s Cafe theatre well without having the available space looking crowded. While the frenzied action of Bernard and his three women crescendos out of control, the script doesn’t call for chasing bodies around tables, chairs, and sofas, which is a good thing as they’d be simply no room. And unlike those British sex farces with titles like No Sex Please, We’re British, Shut Your Eyes and Think of England, or even Run For Your Wife, no one drops their pants around their ankles and shuffles across the stage chasing each other with their arms reaching out while resembling a demented penguin. In fact, in Boeing-Boeing’s case, despite this being a sex comedy, the whole thing throughout is so clean in its naughty yet innocent way, it’s practical ‘G’ rated.
It’s also good that although there was an update in the 2007 translation, the play itself remains firmly in the sixties, allowing for the term ‘stewardess’ to be used instead of ‘flight attendant.’ Plus, it gives the play the opportunity to reference airlines of the past, such as TWA and Pan Am while the three women can wear those brightly colored airline uniforms rarely seen today.
As Robert, Davis plays him not so much as the traditional, straight-laced nerdy bundle of nerves in a bow tie but more as a long-haired freewheeler who turns up unexpectedly on Bernard’s doorstep. Curiously, even though Bernard wears a jacket in his own home, Robert, who has just traveled all the way across the Atlantic from Wisconsin and carries three heavy bags of luggage, turns up in an opened neck shirt looking as if he probably lived next door and just casually strolled by.
As for the three women, Vanessa Benjamin as the American stewardess Gloria, Gigi Sibilla as the Italian Gabriella, and Jocelyn Smart as the German Gretchen all play their characters with the appropriate broadness of tone and action that the parts require. If you were to impersonate what you thought were the exaggerated traits of a cartoon version of those nationalities, you’d be close to how they’re presented. Smart’s Gretchen is so comically outrageous you’d swear that at any moment she’s about to go through one door as a stewardess and emerge next as a dominatrix, complete with whip (a thought that actually has a payoff later in the play).
Farce is not to everyone’s taste, but as long as you know going in what to expect with its overall dated feel of the swinging sixties, its references of the past, and a well-known formula of total, screaming absurdity, Rick Davis and company will deliver big laughs.
Boeing-Boeing continues at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale until October 7