Flights of fancy land on the Lucie Stern Stage

boeing-boeingBy Ande Jacobson

It can be hard to keep up with the hubbub of juggling work and one’s personal life, though keeping to a predictable schedule can help.  Now imagine how one might use airline timetables to arrange liaisons with multiple fiancées, carefully ensuring their visits don’t overlap.  Imagine further how such a plan might go awry, and you have the foundation for Palo Alto Players’ current show, Boeing Boeing, written by Marc Camoletti (originally in French), and translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans.

The story is set in Bernard’s (Michael Rhone) flat near the Orly Airport in Paris, France.  In this version, Bernard is an American living in Paris, and he’s engaged to three different flight attendants who unknowingly form an international, air-hostess harem of sorts.  Gloria (Damaris Divito) is a New Yorker working for TWA.  Gabriella (Nicole Martin) is Italian and flies for Alitalia.  Finally, Gretchen (Robyn Winslow) is a German working for Lufthansa.  Rounding out the cast are Berthe (Mary Moore), Bernard’s French housekeeper who “came with the flat,” and Robert (Evan Michael Schumacher), Bernard’s old school chum from the states.  Berthe helps Bernard keep things running smoothly, until Robert’s unexpected visit and unforeseen disruptions to the precision timetables Bernard uses to schedule his life threaten to gum up the works.

Patrick Klein’s unit set design is spot on capturing the 1960s modernist décor.  Numerous working doors along the walls of the living room adorn the stage.  The oversized molding atop the walls resembles the front of a set of overhead luggage bins in a commercial jetliner, hammering home the airline theme.  Properties designer Pat Tyler’s Naugahyde furnishings and plastic beanbag chair enhance the effect.  Shannon Maxham’s costume design completes the picture with the stewardesses’ familiar uniforms hearkening back to the 1960s.  The fiancées’ bedroom slipper design – fuzzy scuffs with pump heels – seems more “showy” than “slippery”, but it fits the period.

Heading the production staff is director Jeanie K. Smith.  She starts her program note with a quote from the NY Times saying “Boeing Boeing has no earthly right to be as funny as it is.”  Of course being a farce, humor is a strict requirement, and audiences will enjoy this production’s adherence.  The plot is sexy, but the play isn’t dirty.  As Smith points out, “it’s entirely innocent and depends as much on what the characters don’t do as on what they do.”

The members of the cast work well together, though there are a few minor shortcomings in the writing as the playwright takes much longer than necessary to set up some of the jokes, particularly in the middle of Act 1.  Nonetheless, the cast members clearly enjoy what they are doing and provide a fanciful evening’s entertainment chock-full of side-splitting comedy.

Rhone has a penchant for understatement with his delivery of some priceless one-liners.  He also has a good on-stage rapport with all of his fellow actors.  He and Schumacher switch from quiet discussion, to over-the-top physical comedy, running around the stage screaming when the situation starts to spiral out of control.  Rhone sometimes looks a bit pained the wackier things get, but then that’s appropriate given his character’s life is unraveling around him.

Bernard and Robert are supposed to be school chums, but they don’t quite read as contemporaries.  Although both actors appear much younger than they actually are, there is still a disparity in age.  Schumacher works hard, though he obviously misses on some of his lines.  Given his character’s initial dismay at the mess Bernard has created, his misses are in keeping with the spirit of the character since Robert is supposed to have trouble keeping all the lies straight.  Schumacher executes the physical humor of his character well including pratfalls, suitably clumsy advances, and a boyish sheepishness as Robert gets more comfortable with the situation.

Each of the stewardesses is drawn as a caricature of type, but Winslow steals the show.  Her Gretchen is commanding, desperately smitten, and perhaps just a bit fickle.  Her German accent is reminiscent of Hogan’s Heroes.  It’s effective, and she’s consistent throughout the play.  Her volume increases along with her character’s intensity, and at her peak, she adds some very funny physical comedy to the mix.  A patron in my row exclaimed “my, she has pipes” after Winslow’s final excited outburst.

Moore’s Berthe is droll, and almost every line she utters is a punch line.  Moore is blocked to face front most of the time, almost never making eye contact with anyone on stage, and she comports herself with an almost military bearing.  That adds to her character’s apparent displeasure at a few odd interpersonal encounters.

Martin is energetic, particularly later in the play when her Gabriella is agitated and shrill, while Divito’s Gloria is the most relaxed of the stewardesses.  Gloria is slightly cocky, really putting on a New York air, and Divito ably captures the intent.

On opening night, there were a few sound miscues such as phone ringing not always cutting off when the receiver was picked up, but overall things were fairly smooth from a technical perspective.  Given the entire story takes place in Bernard’s living room with all other exchanges delivered from offstage, there is no set movement.  Actors bring various travel accoutrements with them as appropriate, sometimes greatly adding to the humor.

Boeing Boeing is a likeable farce, and the raucousness keeps the audience engaged in spite of the slight mid-first act lull.  Once the intensity starts building, it doesn’t let up until wheels down and lights out.

What:  Boeing Boeing

Where:  Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA

When:  Continues Thursdays through Sundays through 30 June 2013

See http://www.paplayers.org or call (650)329-0891 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo courtesy of Palo Alto Players)

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