An American, Italian, and German stewardess walk into an apartment in Paris… sound like a classic joke? Well, almost – in fact, it’s the basis for No Rules Theatre Company’s spectacularly funny production of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing.
Boeing Boeing is a classic of modern farce. Written in 1960 in France, Boeing Boeing was immediately successful and was quickly translated into English by Beverley Cross. A Broadway revival in 2008 garnered several Tony nominations and kept the show alive in the popular theatre consciousness. Although it has a storied legacy, No Rules’ Boeing Boeing is as fresh, sharp, and funny as when it debuted decades ago. Featuring strong performances from the entire ensemble, clever staging by director Matt Cowart and exemplary design, Boeing Boeing kept the audience in stitches from beginning to end. It is easily the funniest DC area production I have seen in a long time.
The story of Boeing Boeing is simple: Bernard (Nick Kowalczyk) is a classic Swinging Sixties playboy (complete with silk bathrobe), living up the bachelor dream in Paris. When his old school friend Robert (Jamie Smithson) pays him a visit, Bernard tells him about his very unique romantic situation. It seems that Bernard has three fiancés, all flight attendants: A New Yorker, Gloria (Sherry Berg), an Italian, Gabriella (Jenna Berk), and a German, Gretchen (Sarah Olmsted Thomas). Keeping a meticulous schedule of all their flights, Bernard ensures that he spends a few days with each one before they jet off to another spot on the globe. But when Boeing invents a new, faster jet engine, both the airline timetables and Bernard’s delicate love life are upended…
Aside from a clever script, the real strength of Boeing Boeing lies in its tremendously funny cast. Nick Kowalczyk (Bernard) embodies the swaggering self-confidence of a Hugh Heffner wannabe. It is a pleasure to watch as his super-cool veneer comes unraveled throughout the course of the play, despite his best efforts to appear carefree. The perfect foil to Bernard’s stylish hedonism is found in his maid, the self righteous and cynical Berthe (Helen Hedman). Ms. Hedman gives a wonderful performance, the classic Domestic Servant Who Knows All. Despite her loud complaining about “all these people coming and going” and having to cook different ethnic cuisines daily depending on the fiancé de jour, Berthe is an ultimately loveable character who works hard to protect her boss’s secret.
The three fiancés were a joy to watch as well. Far from being three versions of the same ditzy caricature, each one embodied a distinct character. First there is Sherry Berg as Gloria, a tough talking New Yorker who eats ketchup on her pancakes and takes an extremely realistic perspective on mating in the modern world. Then there is Jenna Berk as Gabriella, an Italian beauty who is as quick to love and adoration as she is to passionate anger. Finally, Sarah Olmsted Thomas is Gretchen, an intense German prone to bodily contortions and fits of bipolar emotion. All three delivered the over-the-top emotions and big physical choices that are required by farce. But even in their most clownish moments, each actor brought honesty and authenticity to her role. I was also glad to see that each was remarkably consistent with her respective accent, a feat they were helped to achieve by dialect coach Caroline Stefanie Clay.
Although the whole ensemble contributed to the hilarity of Boeing Boeing, the anchor was undeniably Jamie Smithson as Robert. A naïve and conventional fellow from Wisconsin, Mr. Smithson’s Robert is a theatrical hybrid of Kramer from Seinfeld, Buster Bluth from Arrested Development, and Michael Scott from The Office. His desperate struggle to protect his friend’s secret love life made me laugh so hard I was in physical pain. With the exception, perhaps, of Synetic Theatre, I’m not sure I have ever seen an actor undergo such a rigorous physical work out during the course of his show. Mr. Smithson leaped over furniture, twirled around his cast mates and got himself slapped more times than I can count. Through it all, he never lost his boy-next-door charm or his Palin-esque Midwestern accent.
Smithson was, truly, a comic tour-de-force who vaulted Boeing Boeing to comedy mastery. In a particularly brilliant scene in Act II, Robert must convince Gloria that Gretchen’s tell-tale Lufthansa flight bag is actually his. As the contents of the bag are revealed to include Tampax and a lacy bra, Robert is forced to spin a web of ever more complicated lies, and the audience was rolling in the aisles.
I was very impressed with the design of Boeing Boeing. Scenic Designer John Bowhers built a set that was simple and very evocative of the Mad Men Mod Era. It also provided enough doors that the various characters could enter and exit simultaneously, missing each other (of course) just barely. I was also impressed with the dramatic but not-distracting light design by Travis McHale, and the professional props provided by Sierra Banack. I was especially delighted by the colorful costume design of Chelsea Schuller, whose garments complemented and highlighted each character’s special idiosyncracies.
Director Matt Cowart is to be commended for staging a tight and fast-paced show that zoomed by on stage like one of Boeing’s jet engines. The more distressed that Robert and Bernard become, the funnier it was to watch. Boeing Boeing is a reminder of how enjoyable farce can be when it is performed full-on and with great energy, not to mention, of course, the importance of always keeping a tight schedule.
Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes, with one intermission
Meet the Cast of No Rules Theatre Company’s ‘Boeing Boeing’:Part 1: Helen Hedman.
Meet the Cast of No Rules Theatre Company’s ‘Boeing Boeing’:Part 2: Nick Kowalczyk.
Meet the Cast of No Rules Theatre Company’s ‘Boeing Boeing’: Part 3: Jamie Smithson.