According to the playbill, Marc Camoletti’s sex farce Boeing Boeing holds the Guinness Book of World Records for “most-performed French play worldwide.” It ran for seven years in its original London production but only lasted a few performances on Broadway, and a movie version with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis sank without a trace. The play was revived with much success in London with Mark Rylance, and now lands on Broadway again with Rylance repeating his role. The history of this property points to a major difference in taste between American and British theater audiences: Brits can’t seem to get enough of the kind of door-slamming comedy that was mercilessly parodied in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, where the play-within-a-play, called Nothing On, is a dead-on prototype for this sort of snickering boulevard hit.
Boeing Boeing lasts about two hours and 45 minutes, which is an awful lot of French sex farce, you will agree, but the only reason audiences might object to the length is that their sides will be hurting from laughter. It really is an irresistible evening, and that’s because the actors on stage go so incredibly far with the broadest style of physical comedy. Rylance does a sort of beefy Stan Laurel impression as a slow man from Wisconsin who visits his swinging friend Bernard (Bradley Whitford) and finds himself in the middle of Bernard’s rotating harem of stewardesses. An unpromising premise, Lord knows, but once it’s set up, the play allows the performers a lot of breathing room to create the sort of detailed caricatures usually found in Restoration comedies.
In the somewhat thankless role of Bernard’s French maid, Christine Baranski creates a childlike, wilted Existentialist gamine, and gets an almost Nichols and May-style comic rhythm going in her big scene with Rylance. She has lots of fun with her French accent, but then so does everybody involved; a special word should be reserved for dialect coach Deborah Hecht, who must have had a lot to do with shaping the outrageous vocal performances of Baranski and the three fire-breathing stewardesses. Mary McCormack’s Gretchen has to be the funniest female German stereotype since Madeline Kahn did Dietrich in Blazing Saddles; she comes closest to hitting on the best tone for this material, since, when she’s getting her biggest laughs, she’s also deeply scary. As the Italian stewardess, the visually luscious Gina Gershon is made up like a mid-60s Sophia Loren, and she’s amusingly temperamental, of course. Kathryn Hahn’s American girl seems strangely busy in her first scene in stage, but in her later bouts of tongue-kissing with Rylance, she isn’t afraid to make this girl’s sexual urges completely, even harrowingly grotesque.
The whole experience might be unbearable if the actors weren’t so brutally committed to their oversized choices. Whitford literally climbs the walls at one point, and there’s no end to Rylance’s slapstick set pieces; he must leave the theater with new bruises every night. Camoletti’s text is a sturdy one, to be sure, a well-oiled machine, even, and this sort of farce will always have its place, even if it has never been very popular in the States. The prodigious actors bring out the spine of the well-worn play, revealing a somewhat grim look at male/female relations as well as politically incorrect, gleefully mean satires on national archetypes. I can’t remember ever seeing anything funnier on stage, and by all rights it should run as long as Rylance and company care to play it.