VARIETY BOEING-BOEING REVIEW
by David Rooney
The three women being juggled in "Boeing-Boeing" by an American Lothario in Paris are referred to not as flight attendants but by their more quaint denomination, air hostesses. That in itself indicates we're in a time warp. But PC police preparing to press charges of gender objectification should back off. These are no demure trolley dollies; they're bewitching sex amazons who rule even in chaos. It could have been a tired dollop of '60s camp in the wrong hands, but director Matthew Warchus and his sparkling cast fine-tune this fluffy French farce with clockwork precision, and the result is a riot.
Warchus sets the frothy tone with a pre-show string of '60s French pop covers while lighting designer Hugh Vanstone gets the white curtain pulsing with a succession of day-glo colors before being raised to reveal Rob Howell's cream-on-cream Paris apartment living room, its curved wall interrupted by seven doors. It takes a while to get those doors swinging, and like all farces, this one functions better after lift-off than while taxiing. But once the opening set-up is out of the way, Warchus leans steadily harder on the accelerator and the comedy rarely pauses for breath.
American architect Bernard (Bradley Whitford) clearly is sitting pretty in Paris, even if his full-time job seems to be coordinating arrival and departure times for his international harem of fiancées, including perky New Yorker Gloria (Kathryn Hahn), who flies for TWA, sultry Alitalia beauty Gabriella (Gina Gershon) and no-nonsense Lufthansa fraulein Gretchen (Mary McCormack). Bernard's disgruntled French maid Berthe (Christine Baranski) is a reluctant accomplice in keeping each woman unaware of the others and varying the menu to reflect their native cuisines.
When Bernard's old school chum Robert (Mark Rylance) comes to visit from Wisconsin, the unworldly rube at first seems intimidated by the parade of gorgeous girls and overwhelmed by his host's dizzying schedule. But, soon, delayed flights, unexpected turbulence and the increased turbo thrust of the new Super-Boeing engine conspire to throw off Bernard's carefully planned timetable. When all three girls turn up at once and mayhem ensues, Robert finds crafty ways to further his own romantic cause.
OK, so it's not exactly Moliere, but the breakneck pacing, the agonizing, close-call timing of all the comings and goings, the escalating outrageousness and the cast's breezy charms make it impossible not to be swept along. And while it usually requires more verbal complexity than physical dexterity to sustain this kind of featherweight comedy, Warchus and the ensemble do a remarkable job of keeping things at cruise speed for 2½ hours with no discernable lags.
Much of the success is due to the heart invested in the material, notably with Bernard's triple flames. Playing them as mile-high bimbos no doubt would have confined the audience's involvement to the well-oiled mechanics of the plot and not the characters. But Hahn, Gershon and McCormack -- poured by designer Howell into figure-hugging flight uniforms in the bold, contrasting colors of their respective airlines, and equipped with backcombed '60s hairdos and troweled-on, period-appropriate eye makeup -- all pull off the considerable feat of playing wildly exaggerated stereotypes with irresistible human touches and defining quirks.
Like Paris Hilton on steroids, Hahn initially seems like a standard-issue former cheerleader -- pushy, entitled and dazzlingly confident. But when Robert's attempt at covering the tracks of one of Gloria's rivals gives her the impression he's hiding some kinks under his woolly surface, her voracious sexual appetite threatens to devour everyone on stage. She also gets to spout some hilarious observations on how divorce and alimony help make America great and ensure a stable economy.
Channeling vintage Sophia Loren, her curves all but exploding out of her uniform, Gershon exudes love, desire, maternal warmth, petulant impatience and fiery anger in perfect measure -- sometimes all at once.
Scene-stealer McCormack is so passionately intense she's terrifying. Every exchange involving Gretchen is a bellowed interrogation as she strides around like a lady wrestler, sprinting across the stage (forward and backward) like an athlete right out of Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" or standing with legs akimbo, looking like she's about to launch a shot put. Her inflamed defense of the virtues of sauerkraut is priceless.
But while none of the women are slouches, the master of physical comedy here is Rylance, the one holdover from the production's London cast. Doing a flawless Wisconsin accent and digging deep into the Stan Laurel vaults for inspiration, he's like a coiled spring who can shrink at will into inconspicuousness or come suddenly, unpredictably alive with febrile energy, managing to stay in character through even the most outlandish collisions. With inexhaustible inventiveness, Rylance gives shape to Robert's sly blossoming from a meek, unsophisticated bystander into a man eager to remedy his romantic inexperience and not shy about partaking of his friend's female smorgasbord.
Despite being the catalyst for this circus, Bernard is in many ways a backseat role, though Whitford makes an appealing foil and frequently gets to let loose his lunatic side, skipping on air as he contemplates the bliss of his polygamous engagements or shuddering in horror every time a door flies open to reveal a fresh challenge.
Top-billed Baranski is still in the process of nailing her character but she's funny nonetheless as she grumbles and rants about the inconveniences she must endure. The casting of the actress as a long-suffering domestic is a droll joke in itself given that she's unlikely ever to have switched on a vacuum cleaner. But hiding Baranski's comic aplomb and brittle deadpan behind a bobbed wig, glasses and a thick French accent (she's the spitting image of superhero costumer Edna Mode in "The Incredibles") presents a challenge that she's still working to overcome.
There are other imperfections here such as some unnecessary clutter on one side of Howell's set -- the minimalist chic of two strategically placed Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs, a telephone and the forever-slamming doors are all that's required. But nothing sullies the enjoyment of Warchus' sprightly production or of the play's unexpected ingenuity at concocting an outcome that allows everyone to extricate themselves from the sticky mess without humiliation.
Icing on the cake is watching the cast share their almost improper enjoyment during the go-go curtain calls, choreographed by Kathleen Marshall with so much verve they almost make you forgive her for "Grease."