Review of Boeing-Boeing

About this time last year, N.C. Stage delighted local audiences with Joe Orton’s near-perfect What the Butler Saw, a 1960’s British sex-farce under the mischievous direction of Ron Bashford. Apparently the success of that production has alerted the theatre to an insatiable demand among its patrons for the three classic forms of naughtiness: Girls in Miniskirts, Girls in Their Underwear and Girls Appearing at Exactly the Wrong Time in Either Their Underwear or a Miniskirt. Oh, and a subsidiary: Multiple Trips to the Liquor Cabinet. Now N.C. Stage reaches across the Channel to bring us French playwright Marc Camoletti’s 1962 Boeing-Boeing, and the scampering continues unabated.

I wouldn’t have believed an audience could actually screech with laughter, but this past Sunday’s sold-out matinee opened my ears to the alarming possibility. Under Neela Muñoz’s confident direction, Boeing-Boeing delivers enough comic G-force to keep the audience reeling in their seats.

At the center of the mayhem is the now-familiar comic duo of Scott Treadway, formerly of Flat Rock Playhouse, and Charlie Flynn-McIver, the Artistic Director of N.C. Stage. First of all, these guys just look funny together — Treadway with his gaunt helplessness is a perfect foil to Flynn-McIver’s burly bluster — but their interactions, and especially their physical shenanigans, are high-grade comedy. Boeing-Boeing offers a perfect vehicle (no pun intended) for their delightful mixture of situational comedy and slapstick. Seeing Flynn-McIver execute a full face-plant into an orange beanbag pillow is worth the price of admission.

Flynn-McIver plays Bernard, a high-flying bachelor engaged to three different airline stewardesses (one American, one Italian and one German, like the premise of a lame joke), whom he lands and clears for takeoff from his swank Paris flat with all the flair of a hotshot air traffic controller. When his old college friend Robert (Treadway) shows up for no apparent reason, Bernard can’t help swaggering a bit.

The moment he describes his revolving-door sex-life as “paradise,” however, we pretty much know exactly how this plot is going to go. Yes, implausible as it may seem to contemporary audiences, it turns out that, in the 1960s world of this play, flights are sometimes delayed, rerouted or even cancelled; with the unpleasant result that all three of one’s fiancées can end up coming home at once. When that happens, and you really are caught with your pants down, you can only pray that your bumbling old friend Robert and your plucky French housekeeper Bertha are there to cover your ass. 

As Robert, himself an aging and slightly threadbare bachelor from Wisconsin, Treadway is relentlessly funny. The words come out of his mouth as if catching him by surprise every time, and he turns Robert’s ineptitude into a ballet of near-misses. Most impressively, he relies very little on the sort of mugging to which such a play would tempt a lesser actor, but instead finds rich comedy in the sheer timing — often between one word and the next –– and in subtleties of inflection. He’s relaxed and natural, and whenever he’s on stage (which, luckily, is most of the time in this show), the audience feels it’s in good hands.

Paige Posey impresses as Bertha, the working-class help who is indispensable both to her employer and to farces in general. As required, she offers some welcome astringent— both moral and practical –– to the preposterous goings-on. And for a moment, in a scene she shares with Robert, we almost catch a glimpse of real human longing in Bertha— shocking indeed in a play like this.

And now back to the Girls. There are three of them, as I mentioned, all airline stewardesses, and I’m not sure which is less hard on the eyes than the others. Robert seems to feel the same way, and I suppose that’s the point. To help us distinguish them from each other, they have color-coordinated gear (red, yellow and green) corresponding to their respective airlines. Maria Buchanan (as Gloria, the gold-digging Southern Belle), Vivian Smith (as Gabrielle, the Italian firebrand) and Julia VanderVeen (as Gretchen, the post-Wagnerian basket-case from Germany) seem to be enjoying themselves immensely in their roles, and they hit their assigned dialects with impressive consistency. They’re all shamelessly type-cast, of course, but in a farce, what you see is what you get, and little time is wasted on subtleties of character development. To keep things symmetrical, they all have the same motive as well: to get hitched asap. Apparently that’s the only thing women wanted in the early ‘60s. Each of the three has her moment, but VanderVeen’s hysterical romp across both the furniture and Posey’s anatomy in her first scene is, well, hysterical.

Speaking of the furniture, Dennis Maulden’s set is both accurate and serviceable — even down to the multiple doorways the script requires — no easy feat in that space. Likewise the costumes, by Deborah Austin, and the props, by Jessica Kammerud. Nothing obtrudes as anachronistic or ill-suited, and Timothy Hart’s lighting is so seamless one hardly notices it at all.

And yet, for all the show’s delights, there’s still the matter of the Girls. It would of course be a major buzz-kill to criticize the play on moral grounds as sexist. After all, these frivolous Girls are not meant to represent real women — they’re presented as mere eye-candy both for us and for the Boys. But the Boys (who are all significantly older than the Girls) are clearly meant to be realistic on a certain level — this is how they’re written, and this is how they’re played. If nothing else, this creates an imbalance in the play that is now, some forty years after the play was written, perhaps more difficult to overlook. But the show pretends to be nothing other than it is: a great piece of entertainment, featuring some of the area’s finest actors. If it doesn’t sell out, it will come close.

Editor’s note: The run was extended for an additional week because of a string of sold-out shows and overwhelming demand.

Boeing-Boeing, by Marc Camoletti. Directed by Neela Muñoz for North Carolina Stage Company. Featuring: Maria Buchanan, Charlie Flynn-McIver, Paige Posey, Vivian Smith, Scott Treadway, Julia VanderVeen. Stage Manager: Connie Silver. Lighting Design: Timothy Hart. Scenic Design: Dennis Maulden. Property Design: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays, through March 20, 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays), at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $25, depending on day. Reservations: (828) 239-0263.

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