By Charles Brousse
Year in and year out, the English-language adaptation of Marc Camoletti’s 1960s bedroom farce, Boeing Boeing—on view through May 1 at Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre—is among the standard program choices at this country’s community theaters. The local run provides an enticing opportunity to see what lies behind its apparent popularity.
I say “apparent” because the allure for American theater programmers may be based on the play’s racy theme and international success. The original French version set a Paris record by running for 19 years, and its English language counterpart filled a London West End theater for seven. Beyond those global centers and in various translations, Boeing Boeing is acknowledged to be among the most widely produced plays in recent history.
The U.S. experience, however, has been quite different. While I don’t have statistics about ticket sales at the community theater level, the professional ledger isn’t exactly encouraging. New York’s original 1965 run lasted only 23 performances. A 2008 revival won several Tony Awards, but still closed after 229 performances—very brief by Broadway standards and certainly not enough to repay investors. Meanwhile, the large regional nonprofit companies (probably because they consider the piece too “commercial”), have largely ignored it.
What does all of this have to do with RVP’s current production? It means that Camoletti’s hit play may not be the surefire ringer that programmers imagined. I think a big part of the problem lies in theatergoers’ ambivalent attitude about its content.
Boeing Boeing is a traditional French sex farce in the style that made Georges Feydeau so popular a century ago. Bernard (a well-off, middle-aged American businessman living in Paris in the Beverly Cross/Francis Evans English translation) thinks he has found the perfect arrangement to satisfy his desire for diversity and what must be an exceptionally powerful libidinal appetite. By scrupulously charting departures and arrivals of major airlines, he has been able to con three attractive, but obviously naive stewardesses (Gabriella, the earthy Italian; Gretchen, a German romantic; and Gloria, the practical American) into thinking each is his fiancé and therefore available for whatever sexual pleasure he may require. Reinforced by a stream of lies and phony promises—and with the invaluable assistance of his world-weary French housekeeper Berthe—everything has proceeded without a hitch until …
Not wanting to be a spoiler, I’ll stop here. Let’s just say that, as in all classic bedroom farces, there will come a reckoning, but—miraculously—no one will be hurt, justice will have been done, life will go on and folks can exit the theater feeling pleasantly entertained.
This is where the uncomfortable American ambivalence comes in. Whether it’s our Calvinistic background or something else, unlike the more hedonistic French, we don’t view sex in playful terms. Everything is NOT permitted in love and war. Even though the rule is violated all the time, it’s NOT OK to lie and cheat to obtain sexual favors. Laughs aside, Bernard is a scumbag predator and these gullible women are his victims.
So, how do you get around this line of thinking? It’s difficult to say. Having a stronger production, one that emphasizes its French origin, might help to promote the amoral attitude toward sex that is necessary to appreciate bedroom farce. In RVP’s case, only Alison Whismore’s Berthe truly captures its European flavor. Jayme Catalano has some nice moments as an over-the-top, Walkure-like Gretchen. Robyn Grahn (Gabriella) and Jessica Lea Risco (Gloria) contribute solid performances, but neither provides the needed sparkle. Mark Vashro gives a good account of himself as Robert, Bernard’s ingenuous friend from Milwaukee, who eventually aspires to replace the “Master.” As for Bernard himself, I have the sense that Sean Garahan is trying a bit too hard to give the impression that he is in control of the situation, no matter how dire it becomes. After a while, his persistent lack of concern and exaggerated self-confidence wears thin. Director Christian Haines’ emphasis on broad physical comedy produces some laughs, but also obscures the production’s European inheritance, which requires stylistic delicacy to succeed.
These problems aren’t entirely RVP’s fault. I don’t remember ever hearing anybody say that transferring French bedroom farce to American soil would be easy.
NOW PLAYING: Boeing Boeing runs through May 1 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.