nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 8, 2008
In my Playbill for Boeing Boeing, there's an article by Louis Botto about memorable quotes from theatre reviews of the past—barbs like Walter Kerr's headline for his review of I Am a Camera: "Me no Leica." I wish I had something even half as witty with which to begin this review, but alas, I am coming up dry.
So instead I will say just this: the two and a half hours I was in the Longacre Theatre last night felt like two and a half eternities to me; watching Boeing Boeing was an unpleasant, almost torturous experience. Some funny people (e.g., Christine Baranski, who has been hilarious elsewhere but is entirely at sea here) and some decidedly unfunny people (e.g., Bradley Whitford and Mark Rylance, the play's leading men) are attempting to do a far-from-classic French sex farce of 1960s vintage, written by Marc Camoletti and translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. But under the leaden direction of Matthew Warchus, the show proceeds at a snail's pace, leaving us with way too much time to realize how offensive the story is and how miscast the actors, save Gina Gershon, all seem to be.
The premise of Boeing Boeing is that Bernard is engaged to three beautiful flight attendants at the same time. Their divergent schedules—which he tracks dutifully (and presumably hilariously) via a copy of the Flight Schedules of all major airlines that sits on his desk—enable him to see his fiancees without any of them suspecting his duplicity. Helping him keep track of the girls is his sour French maid Berthe (Bernard, an American architect, lives in Paris). All has gone well until today, when his old friend from Wisconsin, Robert, turns up unexpectedly. Soon thereafter, the fiancees' schedules go haywire, and by the time the first act curtain falls, all three of them are at or approaching Bernard's apartment. Complications, as they say, ensue.
In this production, though, it takes so long for the story to get going—at least a half an hour passes before Robert even arrives—that there's lots of time up front to ponder just exactly what sort of loveless, egotistical, objectifying scumbag Bernard really is. Maybe it was really funny in 1962 to contemplate a man-about-town juggling three women (whom he identifies by their country of origin; whom he meets through a friend/procurer at the airport; whom the costume designer has helpfully color-coded so we can tell them apart) like so many pets. It isn't funny in 2008, even if the program assures us that the play is set in the '60s. Why are we reviving this lame, offensive bit of drivel?
Once Robert does arrive on the scene, and the necessity for keeping the three stewardesses from ever being in the same room at the same time asserts itself, opportunities for fun become apparent. But Rylance, who heretofore has been known for much more serious kinds of drama, never presents us with a characterization for Robert that helps us understand (a) why he allows himself to get involved in Bernard's foolishness and (b) why we should be rooting for him to succeed in helping Bernard survive the inevitable explosion when his deceptions are revealed. Further, though Rylance executes lots of physical/slapstick antics, nothing he does feels funny: the clown's grace is absent; the timing is always just slightly off.
Whitford, who as Bernard needs to be straight man to Rylance's man/child Robert, has seemingly been directed to play his role at full tilt all the time, sort of like Cary Grant's manic turn as Mortimer in the film Arsenic and Old Lace (when what's called for is something along the lines of Tony Curtis's silly-but-smooth Joe in Some Like It Hot). Similarly, the actresses playing the fiancees—Kathryn Hahn as the American, Gloria; Gina Gershon as the Italian, Gabriella; and especially Mary McCormack as the German, Gretchen—are always at full volume, vocally and otherwise; Hahn and McCormack assume garish aggressive postures so frequently that you wonder how their characters ever got through flight attendant training. Gershon, it must be noted, is resisting Warchus's attempt to make everyone in the play into the most foolish and repulsive caricatures possible. But she cannot save Boeing Boeing from the director's determination to crash it.
And then there's top-billed Christine Baranski, who deserves a better vehicle for her return to Broadway. She plays Berthe the maid, which is the smallest role in the piece and gives her very little opportunity to display the wry deadpan wit she's known for—particularly because she's made to deliver her lines in a thick (sometimes incomprehensible) French accent.
I hope to see Baranski in something more suitable, and soon.