High-Flying Boeing-Boeing Hits Comedy Stratosphere

Shut the front door. And the kitchen door. And the bathroom and bedroom doors. If it's a farce, and WaterTower Theatre's Boeing-Boeing is a classic one, count on doors swinging open and slamming shut with split-second precision. The six characters in this 1962 Marc Camoletti sex comedy burn oodles of calories making entrances and exits through many unbattened hatches, with laughs hinging on how well everybody handles their knobs (tee-hee).

Forty-plus years ago this silly play lasted only 23 performances on Broadway, though it ran seven years in London and an astonishing 19 years in Paris. After a dud American movie version starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis, Boeing-Boeing sputtered back a few years later as a staple of the dinner theater circuit. Back in the 1970s and '80s dinner theater was big doin's and Dallas had five of them, drawing marquee Hollywood has-beens like Bob Cummings, Sid Caesar and Van Johnson to town to perform in Boeing-Boeing and other lighthearted fare for the roast-beef-and-cheesecake crowd.

After dinner theaters and their elderly stars died off, Boeing did too, until about five years ago. With a translation from the original French by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, the play was given a makeover by God of Carnage director Matthew Warchus for the first-class London and Broadway revivals. The creaky old nudge-and-wink script about a randy Paris playboy and his three comely "air hostess" fiancées roared back to life as well-tuned Commedia dell'Arte and a campy period piece (it's set in go-go-groovy 1968).

Now Boeing-Boeing is a hot ticket at regional theaters such as Addison's WaterTower, where the current lighter-than-air production employs most of the same cast as last year's staging at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre. Robin Armstrong directed both.

Expanding Boeing-Boeing from Circle's Cessna-sized acting space to WaterTower's wide stage has made it about 100 times funnier, pushing the actors into bigger performances that deliver bolder visual gags. Armstrong has set a nonstop pace through both of the play's fast-moving one-hour acts. The only time the actors can cool their jets is when they have to hold for the waves of audience laughter to subside.

The comedy's set-up is deliciously dumb and geometrically brilliant. Single architect Bernard (Ashley Wood) occupies a spacious Paris flat, attended to by a loyal but eternally glum housekeeper named Berthe (Lulu Ward). Bernard thinks he's figured out a sweet system for juggling his "international harem" of flight attendant "fiancées": Alitalia's lusty signorina, Gabriella (Emily Scott Banks); TWA's Gloria (Sherry Hopkins), a slow-drawling Southern belle; and Lufthansa's bossy fraulein Gretchen (Morgan McClure). "Fiancées are so much more friendly than wives," he says.

By carefully following the girls' flight schedules in a little notebook he carries, Bernard has successfully kept two babes in the air and one on the ground for months. Then a fog bank rolls in from Scandinavia on the same day Alitalia puts its new Boeings into service, speeding up arrival times just enough to deliver Gabriella to the apartment on the heels of Gretchen. Flight-delayed Gloria shows up too, which sends Bernard's rotation system into freefall.

The mess is further complicated by the pop-in of Bernard's old buddy Robert (Andy Baldwin), a shy bachelor who can barely breathe around so many hot "coffee, tea or moi" mam'selles. With Bernard out of the room, Robert flirts first with Gretchen, then with Gloria in scenes that are as carefully choreographed for slapstick comedy as the fouettés in a Balanchine ballet.

Baldwin gives the awkward Robert a mischievous glint in his eye. His character envies Bernard's bevy of squeezes, but disapproves of how cavalierly his friend is treating the women. Robert's a gentleman, impressed but bewildered at his pal's polygamy.

Andy Baldwin is big fun and a whiz at physical comedy. Watch him go boing-boing over a balcony rail, onto the black leather sofa and onto the floor, sticking a two-footed landing like an Olympic gymnast.

The play has its Moliere moments as the guys work themselves into lathers about which girl will come out of which door when. Ashley Wood is a hilariously panicky Bernard, face turning radish red just before he drops to the floor and hammers his forehead into the carpet in sheer terror that his Lothario act will be found out. It's a high-energy comic turn by this versatile actor.

All the women get their individual moments down the runway. Hopkins plays Gloria as a sexual omnivore, nibbling on wobbly Robert like she's licking the salt off a peanut. As Gabriella, Banks leads from her hips in the skintight green Alitalia uniform. McClure plays Gretchen as a charming daffy-doodle with an Elke Sommer voice.

As Berthe, Lulu Ward lets a Gallic accent get in the way of some of the jokes. But she's right on as the homely anti-stewardess, fed up with catering to Bernard's smorgasbord of menu requests — pancakes and molasses for breakfast, saltimbocca for lunch and bratwurst for dinner.

Turn off your mechanical devices and your brain when you buckle in for Boeing-Boeing. The playwright, director and actors have done the hard work of getting the jokes to lift off and making sure each character lands in the right spot. You can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner