The Long-lived Boeing-Boeing
Sixties soap bubble of silliness
by Sally Mitani
Remember that old late-night TV ad that claimed some washed-up yodeler named Slim Whitman had sold more albums than the Beatles? Well, sit down for a similar crazy-sounding entertainment fact. The 1991 Guinness Book of World Records listed Boeing-Boeing, now playing at the Purple Rose, as the most-performed French play in history. Yep, more than Tartuffe, more than Cyrano, more than the frickin' Count of Monte Cristo. Even with a several-century head start, Moliere didn't stand a chance against this powerhouse by Marc Camoletti, which opened in 1960 in Paris and spread like impetigo in a heat wave.
French? With a title like Boeing-Boeing? Yes, but it translates fine because it's not about France at all. It's about that peculiar era of international playboys, ice buckets, white wall-to-wall, and slippery dressing gowns. The premise in Boeing-Boeing is that three airline stewardesses are all engaged to a slick Casanova named Bernard, whom they visit on Paris stopovers. With the aid of careful scheduling and a hyper-manic maid (played by Michelle Mountain), each never suspects the existence of the other two.
Shortly into Act I, all three show up at the same time. Fortunately Bernard has one of those apartments always occupied by people in bedroom farces, equipped with a handful of extra bedrooms, apparently never before in use, and--sacre bleu!--are they soundproofed? How else could he frantically shunt girls into rooms, with each never noticing the ruckus going on in the living room?
The women in this production are bursting with sex appeal--their craft, of which they're justly proud, is being able to land any man, under any circumstance, and they're helped along by marvelous costuming. Who can resist the juxtaposition of uniforms and slinky lingerie? The men (there are two) are saddled with the problem endemic to Sixties drama. Marooned in a decade that testosterone forgot, they're hardly worth the trouble the women take to land them.
Doors slam as three stewardesses (and the maid) strut their period stuff with
great glee: Gloria (Stacie Hadgikosti) is an American working for TWA, modeled perhaps on Doris Day with earnest, round eyes and a pouty mouth. Then there's Gabriella (Rhiannon Ragland) working for Alitalia, channeling Sophia Loren, with her molten sensuality and quicksilver flashes of anger. And finally, Gretchen, played with comic genius by Charlyn Swarthout, who clearly bases her character on Dr. Strangelove as she stomps around the apartment barefoot wearing her Lufthansa uniform. "Chominy!" is how she pronounces her homeland, with a Doberman-like snarl, and she pronounces it frequently, often trailing off her voice to a whisper, narrowing her eyes, and purring "yah..." It's Swartout's delirious reveling in insanity for insanity's sake that floats this delicate two-act soap bubble of silliness to its conclusion a second or two before it becomes irretrievably ridiculous.
Boeing-Boeing continues its run at the Purple Rose through Saturday, August 28.
[Originally published in August, 2010.]