Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Into the Woods
At first glance, everything about Boeing Boeing should insult our 21st century sense of sexual equality, which maybe was only in nascent form in 1962. Paris-residing bachelor Bernard has decided, "Fiancées are much better than wives, and I do well with three." As he throws a floppy, blue book at his visiting college roomie Robert, he elaborates, "And all you need is a timetable, an airline timetable" (which in the age of Google and Travelocity is a line now much funnier than in was in 1962). Robert's life is a meticulously scheduled, precisely timed (or so he thinks) rotation of three international flight attendants flying Lufthansa (Gretchen), TWA (Gloria), and Alitalia (Gabriella). "I don't change my women; I change my diet. It's like living in a restaurant."
The day Wisconsinite Robert has arrived after not seeing Bernard in twenty years is also the day that engaged Gloria is breakfasting in her French apartment (or so she thinks, hers), Gabriella is flying through for a quick lunch with her hubby-to-be (hmmm), and Gretchen will be having a late dinner and sleeping in the bedroom she shares with her lonely and waiting Bernard (after, by the way, Gabriella's picture is removed and replaced with hers). None of this seems to draw even one worried sweat bead from Bernard. And although Berthe, the resident maid (excuse me, the "domestic servant"), is taking it all in stride while grumbling under her breath about "too much comings and goings," Robert is already in a total, slathering titherand it is only mid-morning.
Serendipitously (of course), all three airlines have just announced new, faster jets that shorten schedules and a major storm is brewing over the Atlantic. You get the picture of what is coming. As the hours tick away, we approach the inevitable moments of more and more doors shutting, panicked screaming, airline-branded luggage mix-ups, and two old roomies turning from their sure, suave, and sophisticated selves into bubbling, blubbering buffoons.
And what about the troubling sexist undertones of this comedy that some might think outdated? Oh, the three women take care of that. They are not the airheads first glances might assume. Clearly, we come to see who is really in charge, who is cheating on whom, and who will decide the destinies of the gutless wonder guys going forward.
Joshua Hollister begins as the cool, collected Bernard who is so confident in his system of rotating, radiant roomies. His handsome, groomed look and his slightly smirked grin belie any possibility of disaster. Michael Barrett Austin as Robert can only marvel with wide-opened mouth and stunned looks of amazement at his friend's set-up. Robert's nervous laughter, however, becomes more manic-sounding as he senses things are about to go awry. As the bodies in the bedrooms begin to accumulate, both men melt down in ways that are hilarious tp to behold. Limbs fly in all directions as bodies tumble over furniture, walking across the apartment becomes running, and voices rise an octave higher than any male should ever emit. Both actors excel in moves and manners that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin would envy. When they together bounce repeatedly in full desperation trying to hide inside a fluffy 1960s beanbag chair, the audience can almost take no more without collectively passing out.
Then there are the three flight attendants, each of whom seems funnier than the former until the former comes back to the fore. Courtney Hatcher is the squeaky voiced, slightly Southern-drawled Gloria all decked out in a tight, red uniform who has a penchant for practicing and perfecting her kissing. ("It's better than sitting around playing gin rummy.") Blue-clad Gabriella (Halsey Varady) is a hot-blooded Italian through and through, with a temper that rises and explodes in screams almost as quickly as her desire to make passionate love now. Tall Gretchen, always in sexy yellow, starts undressing the moment she arrives and is soon upside down with feet in air and arms twirling like windmills as Allison F. Rich excitedly awaits her Bernard to come whisk her away. (But wait, where is he? Gretchen has arrived hours early.)
All three actresses never miss a chance to exaggerate voice, movement, and expression in ways that draw huge responses from the delighted audienceall done in superb slapstick that is well timed and well executed. But as good as they and the two guys are, the best of the bunch award might just go to Celia Maurice as the no-nonsense, up-turned lip, smoking Berthe. A nodded side-glance, a flipped hand, a curt "humph," or a raised eyebrow time and again send the audience reeling. Her initial subtle, carefully nuanced reactionsfull of funny French contempt for anything Americanwonderfully bookend the increasingly frenzied worries of Bernard and Robert. But as she warns the audience before intermission, "Drink up ... It's going to be a bumpy night," Berthe is not immune to mad and manic breakdown; and when she does lose it, Celia Maurice proves to be a clown extraordinaire.
To support the outstanding acting and directing is a production that is in all ways first-class and in keeping with the time period of the play. Prints of Lichtenstein and Warhol, black leather furniture against an all-white backdrop, the aforementioned beanbag chair, and doors that perform with precision are just some of the fine touches in Guilio Cesare Perrone's set design. Multi-colored lights reflecting in psychedelic shapes on the floor to set the pre-play mood are just part of Maurice Vercoutere's effective lighting scheme. Sounds of the early '60s bring back memories for the audience boomers, thanks to Cliff Caruthers' sound. And not enough can be said for the humor and authenticity combined that are provided by the picture-perfect costumes of Abra Berman.
In a year that The Stage has presented two historically significant and critically acclaimed plays (RFK and Valley of the Heart), how wonderful for the company to let down its hair and bring back a vintage, world-renown comedy like Boeing Boeing, and prove to all of us that laughter for two hours can be the best medicine for whatever has been ailing us.
Boeing Boeing continue through May 1, 2016, at at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.