One of the most common criticisms of Boeing Boeing, playwright Marc Camoletti's 1960s farce about stereotypes, bigamy, beautiful airline hostesses and the room-with-lots-of-doors trope, is that the script sucks. I do not disagree.
That aside, Boeing Boeing still won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, and the rendition onstage now at the Santa Fe Playhouse uses that same script. I didn't see that New York revival, but I have a feeling that award committees were simply so shocked the cast was able to do something so good with so little that they awarded it based on an A+ for effort. But—I wasn't there.
The actors of this Santa Fe production deserve the same A+ for effort and even make it something worth watching—dare I say, something you might go out of your way to watch. Putting on some great Arthur Miller is considerably easier than polishing this turd, and these folks do it well. It could have clipped a little faster here and there, but that's a small crime.
The story concerns smarmy Bernard (Brett Becker), a bougie Parisian architect who, with the help of his surly, eye-rolling maid Berthe (Deborah Martinez), keeps three fiances who know nothing about each other. They are all airline hostesses (stewardesses if you're nasty), and their flight schedules keep them alternately away from the apartment like planes passing in the night. When Bernard's wide-eyed college friend Robert (a downright delightful Kev Smith) comes to visit, everything goes amiss—delayed flights and changed schedules make it so that all three women are in the apartment at the same time. Predictably, chaos ensues.
Let's be clear that there was no weak link in this cast, but having said that, the script pays much more attention to some folks than to others. Each airline hostess is from a different country; as written, the story gives virtually nothing to the Italian, Gabriella, played by Megan Colburn. It's a shame, because Colburn's chic and effortless air could have been better used; my companion suggested that the Italian is simply meant to be more aloof and standoffish, but there wasn't enough given her to communicate much more than a cardboard cut-out. Colburn does her best, but … meh.
The next-best-written hostess is Gloria, the American—a brassy Samantha Orner, who opens the show in a screaming-red jumpsuit, hat and matching lipstick, requesting ketchup on her pancakes. Typical American. She's ostentatious, self-involved, obnoxious and over-the-top, and gets nothing but better as the show progresses. She has the distinct big personality of a woman from the Northeast; and fittingly, the actress' bio reveals she went to Rutgers, the state university of this writer's home state, New Jersey. It shows (in a good way).
The script is kindest to Gretchen, the German hostess, played here by a shining Christine Smith. Now, full-disclosure time: I, Charlotte, also auditioned for this play in December. I was called back to read for Gretchen, up against Smith. Walking out of the callback, I sincerely hoped that director Jeff Nell would choose Smith. I got my wish, and Santa Fe audiences are luckier for it.
Smith, who we most recently saw as a Kit Kat Girl in the playhouse's sold-out run of Cabaret, is hilarious as the overly dramatic beauty, sometimes peeping coquettishly like a milkmaid, then suddenly thrashing about with a booming scream of a Valkyrie. She destroys the stereotype that women can either be beautiful or funny, but never both. Her performance is an absolute treat; if you were on the fence about seeing this show, the promise of her should push you over the edge.
The three non-tall-and-stunning-women cast members are also fantastic; Bernard, despite also being ignored by the writer (there's really no written reason that any one of those women should like him, never mind all three), is slimy and unique in Becker's portrayal, all overly self-confident and smug. We loved watching him unravel. His relationship with Berthe, the maid, is appropriately comfortable. Indeed, Martinez as Berthe has a great rapport with all other actors on the stage, whether she likes them or is freaked out by them or distinctly despises them. It's easy to believe that she, who "came with the place" when Bernard bought it, was born to be an ideal domestic servant while simultaneously keeping her humanity and a solid dose of sass.
The ever-smiling Kev Smith (no relation to Christine), as Robert, is a gem. Robert is wet behind the ears and immensely adorable, drooling over Bernard's fiances and marveling at how his slick friend can possibly keep this ruse going. Also excellent in the casting is that Robert is at least a foot shorter than all of the fiances, especially when they wear their heels. It's slapstick gold.
Now, speaking of heels: We'd be remiss to skip mentioning costumer Ellen Parker's downright triumph with this show. Of course, it's to be expected that the hostesses' coordinated costumes are great (we particularly enjoy Gabriella's short-shorts and go-go boots), but the other three characters are perfectly outfitted as well. Bernard, who makes his entrance in a smoking jacket and white turtleneck, honestly made me laugh just to see him ("Man, this guy's gonna be a douche"). Robert is dwarfed in goofy, nerdy blazers and plaid slacks, complete with a pocket square that matches the pants; Berthe, decked in a French maid outfit, is a character without being a caricature. Community theater budgets are always notoriously slim, but Parker made this show look like it had all the money in the world.
Overall, the playhouse's choice for its season-opener farce was a good one. This could have gone quite poorly, thanks to posessing very little by way of material, but Nell's directorial—and particularly casting—skills are notable in the way these folks can make a business-class feast out of a foil pouch of peanuts.
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday March 1-3; 2 pm Sunday March 4. Through March 11. $15-$25.
Santa Fe Playhouse,
142 E De Vargas St.,