If at first a '60s-era farce sounds a bit stale, get thee to YouTube and watch the 2008 Broadway cast of Boeing Boeing doing a dance-off during curtain call. It's all pulled faces, primary colors and hot-roller hair styles.
The play, written by French playwright Marc Camoletti, was first staged in London in 1962 and has long been a favorite. In 1991 it was named in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most-performed French play.
"Ever since we heard about that, we've wanted to do it,” says North Carolina Stage Company Artistic Director Charlie Flynn-McIver, noting the popular run on Broadway in recent years. “The rights became available this year."
Boeing shares much with the bachelor comedies of its day (Bachelor Flat, Honeymoon Hotel): It's a slapstick confection that requires the audience to suspend certain 21st-century doctrines (here, women just want to get married and cheating is funny as long is the cheater doesn't get caught), but it also recalls a simpler time when men dressed for dinner and you could set your watch by an airline timetable.
The last is the point of Boeing: American-in-Paris Bernard is engaged (though he has no intention of marrying) three women: an Italian, an American and a German, all flight attendants on various airlines that route through Paris. With the help of beleaguered housekeeper Bertha, Bernard skillfully keeps his romances separate, scheduling each visit around flight arrivals and departures. Bernard's friend Robert arrives for a visit at the same time a new, faster Boeing jet is introduced which disrupts the timetable and threatens to expose Bernard's dalliances.
If this seems like light fare for N.C. Stage — the theater company's current mainstage season already presented Angels In America (about desperate lives) and includes One Flea Spare (about the plague) and The Glass Menagerie (about more desperate lives) — comedy really isn't a stretch. A cold reading in front of an audience at UNC-Asheville's Reuter Center, part of the (For)Play Reading Series, proved that, right out the gate, McIver and Scott Treadway (who plays Robert) have great chemistry and intuitive comedic timing.
"They laughed more than I expected," Treadway says of the Reuter Center crowd. "It's about us knowing each other so well. We've done this style of play before."
In fact, Treadway and McIver (with Boeing director Neela Muñoz) were in Don't Dress For Dinner, another sex farce by Camoletti that serves as something of a follow up to Boeing, with the return of Bernard and Robert. And the timing worked well: Treadway, who has been with Flat Rock for 27 seasons as actor, director and associate artistic director, left that position at the end of last year, giving him more time to pursue other interests.
So what's the point of the (For)Play Series' public reading? At the Reuter Center, the actors began fleshing out their characters. Bertha tried on a French accent while flight attendants Gabriella, Gloria and Gretchen spoke in Italian, Southernbelle and German dialects, respectively. "It's an icebreaker, it's an introduction," says Muñoz. What's important to her, as the director, is "hearing it altogether and seeing how they play with each other and seeing either accidental choices or defined choices."
"The process is revealing," says Flynn-McIver. "We try discover what it should be. We don't have an idea of what it's supposed to be.
But does letting the audience into the process from square one kill the mystery? Of behind-the-scenes programs Treadway says viewers are "interested to watch us grow and actually see it work. It's a great emotional journey that they get to take, too."
Flynn-McIver says that it can be frustrating when viewers think theater is easy — an occupational hazard with doing anything well. Revealing the complex evolution from a cold reading to a full-blown performance clues theatre-goers in to the blood, sweat, tears and skill involved.
"It's like the chemical reaction when you're baking where, for a split second, it could go one way or the other before it becomes what it's going to be," Flynn-McIver says of rehearsing. "It feels that way, especially during the tech weekend where you can rehearse 10 hours in a day for a couple of days before you open. Right before people start to come, it gels."
Muñoz says that in larger markets, packages like that are sold to fans who want to know how professional theater works. Most who sign up for such a program are fascinated; some end up getting more than they bargained for. "We used to invite people back stage during the major musicals," she recalls of Flat Rock. "Most of them, who are in the mindset of being educated, are inspired by that. But there are always one or two who say, 'You've destroyed the magic of theater for me!'"
She says she’s "torn about sharing so much” but has also discovered potential ticket-buyers like to feel included in the process.
Stylish, fast-paced Boeing is no hard sell. “For a story like that to take place today is technically impossible because of the internet,” says Flynn-McIver. “And there’s something quaint about the ‘60s mentality of trying to manage this lifestyle. Getting out of control makes them realize the folly of their ways. They get away with it, but they get what’s coming to them by way of this equilibrium. It’s fun to experience that vicariously through these characters who are doing things that you might have thought about in your wildest dreams.”
“I like the mid-’60s,” says Muñoz. “It’s an interesting time. I like the way the set works and the costumes.” She means the flight attendant uniforms — all pencil skirts and fitted jackets.
“The uniforms are such a huge part of the visuals of the show,” says Treadway. “They’re so cute.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Boeing Boeing
what: ‘60s-era bachelor farce
where: N.C. Stage Company
when: Wednesday, Feb. 16-Sunday, March 13 (7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Feb. 16 is pay what you can night, $6 minimum; $16 Wednesdays, $25 Thursdays and matinees, $28 Fridays and Saturday nights. ncstage.org)