Pity the poor critic. She is forced to see plays of a genre that does not naturally appeal to her theatrical sensibility. She prefers serious drama and socially aware satire; she will tell you she finds farce a bore; she has a spouse who absolutely adores it. She was a feminist before she knew how to tie her shoes.
While hashtag #MeToo is striking out against the harassment and assaults by the Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys, Roger Aileses, et al. of the world, she is tasked with reviewing a play about a suave bachelor of the decade known as the Swinging Sixties who kept three women on tap while he professed to be engaged to each of them. On top of all that, the critic once had a lengthy relationship herself with someone who had a barely concealed girlfriend in another city! Trés amusant. Non.
So with raised eyebrow and harassment-detection meter set on high, she sets out to see “Boeing-Boeing”—even the title repeated quickly sounds lascivious—at the Southampton Cultural Center.
Dear Reader, this slapstick romp of sexual derring-do was flat-out hilarious. Liftoff perfect, landing gentle.
It is a French bedroom farce—although you never see the bedrooms—set in the era when sexual escapades of the kind lampooned here were not-so-extraordinary in certain circles. Written by a Frenchman—naturellement—Marc Camoletti, “Boeing-Boeing” is the most performed French play in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Translated into English by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans, it ran for seven years (1962-69) in London, where they appreciate puerile humor and erotic innuendo. Yet it flopped in 1965 on Broadway, closing after 23 performances. (A 2008 revival ran not-quite nine months.)
Perhaps in 1965 the New York Times critic was too offended to appreciate the sexual insouciance of the three “girls”—sexually liberated airline hostesses. At that time “airline stewardess” was an occupation seen as glamorous, and the carefree rake without qualms about his lifestyle would have been thought devilishly clever.
Bernard (Dane DuPuis), is an American architect in Paris who keeps the three women coming and going in his bachelor pad, unaware of each other due to the schedules of the international airlines they fly for: TWA, Air Italia and Lufthansa.
Why worry when the American Gloria (Shannon DuPuis) is in your apartment eating pancakes with ketchup for breakfast when the Italian Gabriella (Josephine Wallace) is heading for Caracas, and the German Gretchen (Samantha Honig) is … oh, who can keep track?
Bernard’s droll French maid, Berthe (Catherine Maloney), is a cook with an international repertoire who changes the framed photographs and the menu to suit the current woman in residence. Berthe is also a kind of Greek chorus who casts a skeptical eye over the proceedings.
Into this roiling cast comes Bernard’s college friend, Robert (John Leonard), a sweater-vested rube from Wisconsin who’s never been kissed by a hot New York woman. Robert ends up not only in the apartment, but in the action.
Things come to a frothy mess when flights are delayed, bad weather turns planes back, and all the women end up with schedules colliding. Robert to the rescue!
Of course it is improbable, but that’s the way of farce. What begins as a sophisticated setup quickly turns silly, and laughter will not be stilled. Think Charlie Chaplin/Monty Python plots. Did they make sense? Hardly. Did we laugh? You betcha.
Same here. Just be apprised that “Boeing-Boeing” is a period piece set in the 1960s—post-pill and pre-AIDS—and divest yourself of any sexual scrupulosity. Yet somehow the play is so madcap that the carnal overtones are distilled to be seemingly innocent. The writing and the chemistry between the characters is fiery rather than sensual. They are over-the-top caricatures of their ethnicity, but that’s also part of the riotous fun.
Opening night, the anxious director Michael Disher averred that there have not been enough rehearsals up to this point, and that the show will be better the day after tomorrow. But despite his misgivings, the cast played against each other with near perfect timing and polished aplomb.
Everyone in the cast is to be commended but some more than others: Josephine Wallace, as the lusty, hot-blooded Gabriella is utterly divine. She has the mannerisms and accent of an Italian woman speaking English down so pat that if there is not an Italian name hiding behind “Wallace,” knock me over. We’ve seen her at Southampton Cultural Center before, but never in a starring role like this. Quite honestly, the lady doth steal the show.
A Sag Harbor attorney in real life, John Leonard as the helpful naïf from Wisconsin also shines, as does Catherine Maloney in the guise of the French domestic Berthe who makes Bernard’s hanky-panky possible. If the French playwright lampooned the non-French characters, he does the same with the complaining, philosophizing deadpan Berthe, as she extracts a hefty raise from Bernard during the mayhem.
Though Southampton Cultural Center works with a limited budget, and often does much with a spare set, here the slick 1960s apartment is tricked out superbly to be of the era. As in most theatrical farces, this is a set of many doors—seven—and they open and shut with precise timing. Sound designer Dennis Milone has subtly miked the cast, but not so loud to be overwhelming.
Several pre-adolescent children were in the audience opening night, and I wondered about their age before the show began. No worries. The play’s so absurd and physical that I’m sure they enjoyed it.
I certainly did. As for the spouse? No need to ask. He was fondly remembering a flirtation with a certain stewardess.
“Boeing-Boeing” continues at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton Village, on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through November 5. Tickets are $25, or $15 for students. For more information, call 631-287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.
One fine body…