Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 21, 2013

Up, up and away

The Players are off and running with an entertaining, frothy farce

by Karla Kane

The year is 1965. The setting is an attractive flat near Paris' Orly Airport. The comings and goings of the various occupants of the flat, especially playboy architect Bernard (Michael Rhone), form the basis of the frothy farce "Boeing Boeing," currently presented by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre.

Bernard has a very active love life. Thanks to his proximity to the airport, he's become acquainted with a series of lovely flight attendants (or "air hostesses," in retro parlance) from all over the world. Three of them, in fact, have become his fiancees. Saucy TWA stewardess Gloria (Damaris Divito) flies in from New York; Italian siren Gabriella (Nicole Martin) comes and goes via Alitalia; and German bombshell Gretchen (Robyn Winslow) proudly serves on Lufthansa. Because of his careful studies of air routes and timetables, Bernard is able to woo all three ladies while making sure each is unaware of the others — with some help from his sharp-tongued but invaluable Parisian housekeeper, Berthe (Mary Moore). This tangled web of romance begins to unravel, however, as weather conditions, the introduction of faster jets, and the surprise arrival of childhood friend Robert (Evan Michael Shumacher) conspire to create a big mess out of Bernard's intricate arrangement.

The action takes place entirely in one day and within the confines of Bernard's apartment. The audience — and Robert — is introduced to each international paramour in turn. Once the characters and situation are established, the plot turns to Bernard's, Robert's and Berthe's desperate attempts to keep the increasingly suspicious women from finding out about one another, with escalating slapstick scenes and histrionics from the cast.

The central concept/gag of Bernard frantically juggling his "harem" is not hard to grasp. The keys to the play's success or failure, then, are the script, the pacing and the cast's execution of the screwball antics. The Players mostly do well with this, although several scenes are belabored and drag on for longer than necessary. A brisker pace would keep the audience's attention from straying.

All of the actors have good comic chops. None of the roles call for restraint or understatement, and the players embrace their chances to mug, shriek, stomp and pose. Luckily, they remain likeable throughout, albeit cartoonish. Even though Bernard is a cad, the play — and audience — take it all in good fun. People presumably really do sometimes get into situations like Bernard's, although it's hard to imagine he really could hope to get away with it for long, or, even more unbelievably, that the women could possibly remain unaware of each others' presence with all the shouting and door-slamming that goes on. But that's all part of the charm.

Shumacher, at first seeming a sidekick, actually carries the most stage time as the naive but fast-thinking Robert. Moore has perhaps the most fun role as Berthe, the all-knowing maid who gets many of the best lines. Though their roles are somewhat one-note, each fiancee manages to make her character her own. They're all so over-the-top passionate and affectionate that you can see why Bernard finds it exciting (though surely tiring) to woo all three, and why Robert has designs of his own. Rhone's Bernard is fairly bland, and you might wonder what the women find so irresistible (the Paris flat can't hurt), but his transition from calm ladies' man to panicked fool is well played.

The characters of Bernard and Robert were originally written as French, which would make more sense. Their being American doesn't seem to serve much purpose.

The script for this production is that of a recent Broadway revival, based on the 1960s version, translated from Marc Camoletti's original French by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. Jeanie K. Smith (a Weekly theater critic) directs.

I'm not sure if the play was refreshingly modern/scandalous when it debuted, or how it might work if set in current times, but as it is, the swinging '60s setting works in its favor and helps make the silliness more embraceable. Patrick Klein's cheeky mod set design is an important part of this, with lovely details such as the apartment's doors and decorative flowers matching the colors of each woman's striking airline uniform.

Within the first few minutes of "Boeing Boeing," the audience has a pretty good idea of what it's in for, and if lightweight, slightly risque but basically harmless farce with a throwback vibe is your cup of tea, you'll find a very suitable evening of entertainment here. Stick around for the inexplicably goofy (even for this show) curtain call, and you'll leave with a smile.

What: "Boeing Boeing" by Marc Camoletti (translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans), presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through June 30, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Cost: $16-$29.

Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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