My sister and I have both been watching ABC’s drama Pan Am with some interest. So when the Paper Mill Playhouse sent out a brochure of their upcoming season including a comedy set in the 1960s and involving stewardesses, we thought this might be something worth checking out. Of course, Boeing-Boeing shares basically no features with Pan Am beyond the time period and the occupation of some of the characters, but it was a highly entertaining production that I would recommend.
As you may have guessed already, I knew basically nothing about Boeing-Boeing before seeing the play, although my wise cousin did mention that the play had been around since the 1960s. Indeed, she was right, as the playbill informs me that it was written by French playwright Marc Camoletti and premiered in Paris in 1960. It was soon after adapted into English by British playwright Beverley Cross and appeared on London (1962) and New York (1965) stages. In 1965, it was made into a movie starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. According to the playbill and Wikipedia, in 1991 the play was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most performed French play in the world with 19 years on the French stage and seven years on the London one, amongst others. (The success of the play even resulted in Camoletti writing a sequel called Don’t Dress for Dinner, which was also produced at Paper Mill Playhouse back in the 1990s.) In 2007, Boeing-Boeing was revived in London and by 2008, it had returned to New York. And for four weeks in 2012, Boeing-Boeing is on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Paper Mill’s production of Boeing-Boeing was top notch.* The atmosphere of the theater was exactly right from the beginning, with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” playing from the speakers before the curtain rose to the playhouse’s typical pre-show “fine print” (no photography, no smoking, there will be an intermission, etc.) being announced as though it were a flight attendant’s welcoming message (‘Thank you for flying with the Paper Mill Playhouse’). The costumes, makeup, and hair styles are all perfect for transporting the viewer back in to the 1960s. The set design was magnificent, with a detailed (but not too detailed) look at Bernard’s Parisian apartment – an apartment so elegant that my sister was jonesing after Bernard’s crown molding and split-level dining/living room.
But speaking of Bernard and his Parisian apartment reminds me that I have yet to give a basic run-down of the play. So here goes:
It’s 1960 and playboy Bernard has perfected his relationship status – he is engaged. To three women. This way, he reasons to his visiting friend Robert, he will never have to endure monotony. All three women are flight attendants – American Gloria with TWA, Italian Gabriella with Alitalia, and German Gretchen with Lufthansa – so they are never in town at the same time and thus never need to know about each other. Bernard invites Robert to sit back and kick up his heels while Gloria heads out after breakfast, Gabriella flies in for lunch and out again before dinner, and Gretchen wraps up the evening. But Bernard’s perfectly timed out plans quickly go awry when the time tables are changed on him, and he needs Robert’s help – along with the help of his own long-suffering French maid Berthe – to juggle all three women and keep them out of sight of one another.
Obviously, this play is meant to be a comedy (specifically a farce***). And it is certainly is. I can’t recall the last time I was in a theater where the whole audience was uncontrollably laughing for the vast majority of the play. In fact, if I had one complaint about the play, it would be that all that laughing was bad for me, as I was recovering from an illness and every time I laughed, I ended up coughing again. C’est la vie.
Beyond the situational comedy that arose from such an absurd plot, the play also has its fair share of physical comedy, which the actors all pulled off with perfect grace. At first I was a little put off by the exaggerated, over-the-top accents of the women (including Berthe), but then I realized that this was an intentional thing to add to the comedy and I went with it. Paper Mill has been marketing the play with the tagline “Hijinks are in the air!” and that is certainly a fitting summation.
For a feel of the play, Paper Mill has released a video montage of scenes from the play. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with this montage on first view. I’m not sure if it’s the scenes chosen or if it’s the absence of audience laughter for the great one-liners, but seeing this video certainly was not as appealing as seeing the play. I’ve included here for some context, but I’m more inclined to say: Go out and see the play for yourself! And hurry, because the production is only ongoing for two more days (and that’s including today!).
*This should be no surprise. Whether it was The Secret Garden with our aunt when we were kids, Cinderella as a birthday treat for my sister, or Steel Magnolias to satisfy our Gilmore Girls fangirl** yearnings by seeing Kelly Bishop live, my sister and I have never been disappointed with a Paper Mill Playhouse production.
**Did you know that no less an authority than Merriam-Webster Dictionary considers “fanboy” a word but not “fangirl”? I could go into a feminist diatribe here but I’ll just leave it at that. Make of it what you will…
***An audience guide provided by Paper Mill Playhouse describes farces in detail, including some history of the form. Some tidbits include, “Farce differs from standard classical comedy in one major way: it is an exaggerated, broad form of comedy based on unlikely situations and highlighted by contrived and improbable plot twists. … The driving force behind a farce is fast action, brisk dialogue, visual effects, mistaken identities and convoluted and complicated plots. … It is a comedy that exists purely for the sake of generating laughter in the audience. … Like all good farces, the play invokes laughter by the violation of social taboos, but the characters and values under attacked are eventually restored to their conventional positions.” So, all’s well that ends well, although all is well throughout in a manner of speaking because it’s all meant for a laugh.