Boeing Boeing (Players of Utica, 2014)

Poster for Boeing Boeing
The sound of an audience laughing is a beautiful thing. Sitcom producers could have recorded a trove of wonderful reactions at Players of Utica last night. We also saw the magic of live theater – as the audience laughed, the performers got better and better, which continued the cycle.

Boeing Boeing is a French farce that premiered in 1960, was translated into English in 1962, and by 1991 was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-performed French play in the world (according to Wikipedia). Playwright Marc Camoletti laboriously constructs his framework in the long opening scene – an American expatriate in Paris juggles three fiancés, all flight hostesses on rival airlines, using a book of timetables and a rotating picture frame to execute the deception.

Farce is a delicate thing – like a soufflé. Once the pieces are in place, the dialogue and physical comedy need to be executed precisely and rapidly, and it should look easy. Dropped lines or hesitations spoil the flow, as well as actors who aren’t completely in synch with each other and the material. I saw two versions of Lend Me a Tenor a few years ago that I wish could have been combined – I still remember bits from each that I loved, without particularly loving either production on its own. Which is to say that producing a good farce is difficult and a bit rare.

Director Stephen Wagner and company got about 80% of the way there, by my estimation – which is actually very good and shouldn’t be considered a putdown. At 2-1/2 hours, the show was about thirty minutes too long; half of that is the padded script, and half was pacing that should continue to improve throughout the run. A lot of the blocking, especially the fast entrances and exits, was spot-on. The Players seating configuration (chairs on risers) continues to be problematic for any action that involves actors lying on the couch or the floor – most of us past the first two rows couldn’t see what was happening. This was especially unfortunately in the case of the aforementioned picture frame. Changing the picture got funnier and funnier as the show went on, but I’ll bet a good share of the audience didn’t see it happening, because the frame was on a low end table.

Eric Almleaf’s Bernard starts the play in a crimson Hugh Hefner smoking jacket, and I was initially disappointed not to get a comically exaggerated portrayal of Hef. As the plot winds itself up and Almleaf becomes more exasperated, his double-takes and googly eyes fall into stride and he’s quite good. Michael Burke’s Robert also has a slow start, especially during the exposition. Once the comedy gets physical, he displays a real talent for slapstick and scores some of the biggest laughs of the evening. The women are well matched and contrasted with one another, and the initial costuming of the flight hostesses is very nice. Hana Meyers is a 1960’s American pinup dream in blue, Deborah Martin is a lusty German goddess in yellow, and Carrie Bostick is a hot-blooded Italian in red. (The colors were so vibrant that I wished they had stayed consistent through the show, with color-matching nightgowns for Act Two.) I had no trouble imagining why Bernard would fall for all of them. Rachel Hasenauer’s Berthe rounds out the cast as the French maid in black and white – a good concept that matches thematically but doesn’t go far enough (the costume needed more frills).

Usually accents are problematic in amateur theater, but a comedy with four women of four nationalities demands an attempt, and as long as the attempt is internally consistent it doesn’t have to be (Meryl) Streepian. Bostick and Martin both did a nice job, with Martin finding some good comedy in hers. I would have liked to hear some kind of French accent from Hasenauer – as it was, her character was semi-redundant given that Meyers was already portraying the 60’s French concept of a modern American woman.

Once the plot kicked into gear the actors started having fun (and the responsive audience surely spurred them on.) A lot of stage alcohol was consumed, and while nobody played overtly drunk, every performance seemed to benefit from the virtual lubrication, especially when some of the comedy veered from classic farce and into character-based weirdness. For example, the scene where Martin’s German and Hasenauer’s Frenchwoman wind up with their hands on one another’s breasts: in classic farce, the situation itself would be the punchline, but Martin’s earthy enjoyment of the moment (and her accent) tips the scene into a different kind of funny. There are a few rabbit holes like that throughout the show, but Camoletti’s script doesn’t allow them to be followed; still, they came like welcome little Easter eggs every once in a while. Ultimately, the playwright himself provides the biggest disappointment. Why not deliver a scene where all three fiancés confront one another? How did that not happen? Meyers’ American is written out of the play in a terribly lazy manner, and the ultimate romantic pairings feel arbitrary. There is the hint at the very end of a terrific capper, but it’s not carried through (I wish they’d gone there.)

Stephen Wagner and Art Felshaw’s set promised (and pretty much delivered) one of the essentials of farce – six doors guaranteed to open and slam rapidly on cue. I would have liked a few more 60’s trappings (the show is firmly grounded in a particular time and place, so why not?) The audience was all in front of the playing area, allowing Ellen Campion’s lighting to be bright and evenly deployed (also helpful in farce). The sound design at Players continues to be poor – all effects come from a small speaker in the booth, behind and to the right of the audience. This was a missed opportunity – the program tells us the apartment is near the airport, which suggests that airplane sounds could have been used to comic effect much like the slamming of doors. I enjoyed the various musical renditions of Fly Me to the Moon, used throughout. The gentle French-accented one made the one long set change bearable (although I don’t know why the change had to go on and on.)

I expect this show to get better and better as lines and movement become second nature to the performers. As a night out, laughing with 100 others beats sitting on the couch and watching Seinfeld re-runs by yourself. Go for it.