The Arts Club’s current production is a steady stream of laughs
Men make plans and the gods laugh, and no hubris goes unpunished. The hero of Boeing Boeing, a hysterical comedy currently on stage at the Arts Club, does not seem well acquainted with this theological tenet — or, for that matter, any dictum of the Lord. His morals are of a decidedly flexible sort, allowing him to string along a trio of adoring fiancées with a clear conscience and a light heart.
Before we brand him as a moral heretic, however, let us note: like his more pious fellow man, his earthly actions are guided by a “good book,” in the dog-eared pages of which he finds guidance through his darkest hours. What matters if this book is not a bible but a dictionary- sized international airline schedule? This book is truly good. Vital, even.
The weighty tome must be consulted as regularly as that of any devout lamb wending his way through life, if not with even more diligence. You see, all three of the future (but not really) Mrs. Bernards are airline stewardesses. Enter the punishment of the airline gods, taking the form of a heralded newer and faster plane. This sleek new jet is to be the fastest yet, a vessel capable of whipping the three unwitting paramours off on their duties and back to Bernard’s apartment with, and especially for the playboy, gut-wrenching speed. His intricate system, maintained with a well-thumbed business agenda and the help of a begrudgingly dedicated housemaid, seems on the verge of collapse.
The private bubbles of romance he inflates around each woman risk rupture, or worse, combination. The play begins, and what the audience of Boeing Boeing takes in is the hysterics of a man whose delicately woven schemes threaten to come undone and trap their owner in sticky threads.
And all of this celestial chaos takes place in a single apartment room. The architect’s den is swank as only a Parisian flat in the 60s can be; the furniture is poshly uninhabitable, the bar stocked with Campari. It is a small set, a living room with a series of doors at the back wall, but at no point during the play does the stage feel cramped or lacking.
In fact, it feels the opposite — as the apartment’s traffic lays complex patterns from door, to bar, to couch, to phone, the set seems to expand to the size of the city and gathers the complexity of a nautical map. If a particular character approaches a particular door, the audience is paralyzed. A knock on another is enough to leave us all gasping with laughter.
And there are laughs a-plenty. The characters are vivid and instantly recognizable: Bernard is the playboy man-child, the lad who never grew up to learn that women of flesh and blood pack more punch than those printed on paper.
His friend, Robert, is the gawky and awkward tag-along who is sucked in and out of the sturm und drang of his friend’s machinations. The trio of fiancées are walking synecdoches of their home terminals: there’s the brash, playful Gloria, as American as bubble gum and soda pop; the dramatic, lyrical, voluptuous Italian, Gabriella; and, from Germany, the brassy six-foot fugelhorn named Gretchen.
But the strongest character in the production is neither suitor nor sweetheart: it is Berthe, the exasperated maid who under her employer finds her job description notably lengthened to include such duties as the changing of photographs and stories at a moment’s notice and juggling of menus to suit each femme — pancakes and ketchup for the American, sauerkraut for the
German, but what do Italians eat? — as they rotate through the apartment.
Berthe, played by Nicole Lipman, steals the show. Her biting one-liners, delivered in a tone right on the edge of polite and patronizing, stick into the other characters like — if we may mix national metaphors — a toreador’s banderillas. And while the others wear their motives on their sleeves, or ring fingers, Berthe is pleasurably hard to read.
Many times her innermost stuff is questioned (she’s practically trampled by the one-woman blitzkrieg of Gretchen, who shows affection in the manner of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, as well as humiliated by the baseness of serving her crepes with ketchup, mon dieu) yet she troops through the chaos steadily, and with cynical determination maintains the bizarre status quo. Her pride and attachment to Bernard clangs against his casual romantic noncommittal, and it’s a fascinating sound.
That isn’t to say that her character completely transcends the stereotype of the snarky French maid. Like the three fiancees, Berthe’s personality is an embodiment of her country when boiled down to a syrupy pop culture reduction. Gretchen exchanges her v’s and w’s, giving the audience at least one bellowing vunderbar; Gloria, the drawling Yankee, is as cut-throat, morally-flexible New World as her sharp-suited suitor; and the Italian Gabriella’s hystrionics are positively operatic.
What’s remarkable is how well these cookie-cutter characters work — something that is fairly well displayed by Boeing Boeing’s five-decade stage history. Is it a simple guffaw-and-groaner? Are its characters fleshed out just enough to deliver the comedy? Is it crisply written, hilarious, and memorable? Oui, ja, and si.