Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A post-mortem on Boeing, Boeing at Trinity Rep

Amanda Dolan, Rebecca Gibel and Liz Dolan are flying the 60's dream down at Trinity.
Time has not been kind to the sex comedy - and it has been particularly harsh to those dinner-theatre romps of the 60's and 70's, like No Sex, Please, We're British, which once roamed the theatrical landscape like naughty mastodons before slowly creaking to a halt, and then seemingly going completely extinct.

Or so we've always told ourselves.

And yet Alan Ayckbourn, who basically crosses this kind of thing with Chekhov, has enjoyed a wide revival in recent years.  And it's impossible not to remark on the similarity of the empowered, woo-hooing twenty-something gal-about-town of today, wobbling through her ritual bar crawl on Saturday night, with the Playboy-Advisor fantasies of yesteryear.

Yes, face it.  Our children are now living the dinner theatre sex comedy we used to watch.

So it's no surprise that Marc Camoletti's Boeing, Boeing, a classic of the genre, has bounced back onto the professional stage - first in London, the homeland of Benny Hill, where a spring of good-natured prurience is forever on tap, and then on Broadway, in a much-lauded vehicle for Mark Rylance and Christine Baranski, and then at Trinity Rep down in Providence, where a broad, brightly-colored rendition packed in happy crowds till last weekend.  (Alas, this is a post-mortem - I thought the show had one more week to go!)

Well, what can I say.  What do I have to say?  History has caught up with the transgressions of this particular farce and surpassed them with such force that now the whole thing seems a little sweet.  Or at least its structure - a model of its kind, and quite a bit tighter than most Feydeau (its major source) - seems almost quaint in its craftsmanship.

You can probably work out the plot just from the title - and frankly, you're always at least a step, if not a whole time zone, ahead of the story - but we'll give you the recap anyway.  In Boeing, Boeing, the masculine dream of polygamous bliss is briefly floated in the person of one Bernard (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a Parisian architect who, thanks to his knowledge of the international flight schedule, is juggling three buxom fiancées simultaneously (each a stewardess - NOT a "flight attendant" - from a different country, to enable all manner of obvious, Gallic jokes about stereotypical national character).  Robert happily explains all this to his amazed buddy, the visiting, virginal American-in-Paris Robert (Stephen Thorne), who - guess what! - soon gets mixed up in the shenanigans.  Because (surprise!) after a snafu in the flight schedules, all the girls show up at Robert's apartment at once!  So it turns into a kind of giant sex terminal, with bedrooms and bubble baths behind every slamming door - as long as the girls don't bump into each other (oh no)!

Stephen Thorne and Rebecca Gibel compare wardrobes.
Yes, before there was Grindr, there was the Boeing 707, only that earlier app came tricked out with all manner of bourgeois romantic conventions (note the "fiancée" gambit) - hence the opportunity for farce, which is always about the pressure of instinctive human desire against the strictures of social convention.  Although fear not, my settled suburban friends, Boeing, Boeing in the end is hopelessly square - at the finish, the last door is firmly slammed on the sexual id, the morality of monogamy is explicitly confirmed, and everyone ends up with the girl (or guy) who's "right" for them.  (This I guess is where the nostalgia part kicks in.)

But in the meantime, under the direction of canny ringmaster Fred Sullivan, Jr. (who I think may have been born to direct this play), the frisky circus at Trinity spun amusingly before it finally wobbled to an exhausted stop (although at times, to tell true, it seemed almost too much of a good thing).  Patrick Lynch's sleekly modern set, all in bold, primary colors - like those airline uniforms - wittily channeled the 60's (Boeing flew for seven years in "Swinging" London) while somehow honoring the clean mechanics of the script itself.  Meanwhile (speaking of structure) William Lane's underwired costumes were half sitcom-French, half hydraulic-marvel - all the bosoms and bums were practically confrontational. But my heartiest kudos had to go to sound designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz - I mean you have to love any production that features go-go in cages and Nancy Sinatra in French.

Nance Williamson gives a classic double take.
Of course none of this could have worked without a hard-working cast that was in just the right mood, and mode, for Camoletti's antics - and rest assured, everything here was executed in the patented high-energy Trinity style.  There was one strange stillness at the eye of the hurricane - Joe Wilson, Jr. seemed a bit lost as Bernard (he only came to a life in his occasional broader-than-broad schtick), which just struck me as odd; can't Wilson do "suave"?  Luckily Stephen Thorne,  in perfect physical-comedy form, picked up the slack as his clueless straight man (another staple of Gallic farce), who desperately kept trying to hold the whole whirligig together for his buddy.

He was more than matched, however, by Rebecca Gibel's squealing American vixen, Gloria, who probably delivered the most bodaciously randy female performance I've ever seen - at one point she was actually blissfully rubbing her bottom across a love seat, and her flight-bag-as-vagina gambit was pretty unforgettable.  (Oh, before you point the finger, you feminist blowhards you, be aware that Gloria turns out to be just as sexually empowered as Robert - she's got a "fiancée" in every port, too.)  I was also quite taken with Amanda Dolan's neurotically growling Gretchen (she's German, so she's a kind of highly-strung SS commandant).  Alas, like Wilson, Liz Morgan didn't give Gabriella, the tempestuous Italian, much in the way of inner intrigue - but she's such a stunning stage presence you didn't really mind.  And I have to also give a tip of my beret to Nance Williamson (above) who made witty hay of Berthe, Robert's maid (and second sidekick), whose blasé demeanor disguised a despairing existentialist.  Sigh - if you're a fan of mild titillation and tight comic construction, then I'm afraid you missed it - but perhaps with a little luck, Trinity will bring the whole crew back for a return flight.

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