OLT’s Boeing-Boeing a booming success

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Categories: Community Theatre

Critic Kenneth Tynan once famously remarked that the hallmark of any really effective drama required key characters caught up in desperate circumstances.

He argued that his definition encompassed Shakespeare’s Hamlet unable to make up his mind. But he also emphasized that it reflected classic ingredients of boulevard farce.

Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing, which romped exuberantly on stage at Ottawa Little Theatre last week, harvests one of the most durable of farcical situations — the womanizer whose philandering world starts coming apart. Bernard is a Parisien playboy who has three airline hostesses on the string — one American, one Italian and one German. Each considers herself his fiancee — and Bernard has come up with a masterful scheme for keeping them away from each other. He sees them only during their layovers in Paris — so, with the handy assistance of airline timetables, he’s able to make sure that once he has breakfast with Gloria, she’ll be on her way before Gabriella arrives at lunchtime. And, of course, if Gretchen arrives in town around dinnertime he’ll be able to accommodate her as well.

Camoletti’s play spins a variation on a familiar theme. Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife gave us a cabbie with two wives and two households in different parts of London. The movie comedy, The Captain’s Paradise, gave Alec Guinness a girl in every port. In Boeing-Boeing, we have the inevitable comic crisis which erupts when airline schedule changes have all three women descending on Bernard’s flat at the same time. So yes, the basic conventions of farce are being served.

But the primary reason Boeing-Boeing has been such a huge international success over the years is that it throws in an hilarious wild card in the person of the awkward and unworldly Robert, the old chum who has arrived unexpectedly on Bernard’s doorstep, only to find himself his host’s hapless accomplice in keeping Bernard’s life from unravelling.

Robert is the character vital to keep Boeing-Boeing airborne. It’s a juicy enough role to have attracted top actors over the decades — the most recent example Shakespearean veteran (and recent Oscar winner) Mark Rylance who leapt at the opportunity to play Robert when the play was successfully revived a few years ago in London and then in New York.

If J. Taylor Morris’s performance at the Ottawa Little Theatre sometimes seems to disintegrate into a tangle of limbs, that’s all to the good. The role of Robert is bolstered immeasurably by an actor as adept at frantic physical comedy as Morris proves to be — indeed at one crucial moment, his entire being seems to be vibrating with anxiety. There’s also a scene in which the philandering Bernard is ingratiating himself with one of his girlfriends while an increasingly frenzied Robert tries to warn him that another of his amours is on the premises behind a closed bedroom door. It’s an outstanding moment in OLT’s production — reflecting director Shaun Toohey’s skill

with comic timing and in striking a deliriously funny note of accelerating comic mayhem.

But Morris’s achievement isn’t only physical. Considering that Boeing-Boeing is a farce, his Robert is also a persuasive study in character. In many respects Ethan Pitcher’s excellent Bertrand serves as the straight man to Robert. At the beginning, he’s the epitome of suave, sexual self-assurance, explaining to his fumbling, naive friend from the backwoods of Wisconsin his recipe for a hedonistic life style. But what’s interesting about this production is that it shows how circumstances can change character. By the end, Morris’s bumbling Robert has acquired new confidence and self-assurance, whereas Bernard is in danger of collapsing into a bundle of insecurities.

The three women in Bernard’s life are essentially types rather than people. But Kelsey Murphy manages to bring a certain Latin elegance to the role of Gabriella, the Italian hostess, and Christa Cullain brings a no-nonsense down-home quality to the character of the American Gloria. Michelle Pare has considerable fun with the character of the German Gretchen, showing an almost Wagnerian quality in her don’t-mess-with-me formidability. Andree Benson is a continuing delight as Bernard’s often beleaguered and tart-tongued housekeeper.

Patty Vopni’s set design is a bit of a mess. It’s solid and functional, equipped with the required number of believable doors behind which characters can be concealed (always a requirement in farce). But given that Bernard is an architect, his sitting room’s mish-mash of colours and furnishings might well deter prospective clients from hiring him to design anything more demanding than a hen coop. Peggy Campbell’s costume designs help define a character like Robert, whose bow tie tells all. But when it comes to the women, their wardrobe selections sometimes seem ill-fitting.

Despite these problems and an ill-conceived curtain call, Boeing-Boeing marks a robustly entertaining launch to OLT’s new season. But its success doesn’t just rest on the high quality of Shaun Toohey’s staging and the responsiveness of his cast. The play also works because of its English translation — initially the work of the late Beverly Cross and later revised by Francis Evans. It’s unfortunate that their contribution is not acknowledged in the printed program.

Boeing-Boeing

By Marc Camelotti

Translated by Beverley Cross (1962) and Francis Evans (2007)

Ottawa Little Theatre to Oct. 1.

Director: Shaun Toohey

Set: Patti Vopni

Lighting: Bryan Morris

Sound: Bob Krukowski

Costumes: Peggy Campbell

Cast:

Gloria…………………………………………….Crista Cullain

Bernard………………………………………….. Ethan Pitcher

Berthe…………………………………………….Andrée Benson

Robert…………………………………………….J. Taylor Morris

Gabriella…………………………………………Kelsey Murphy

Gretchen………………………………………….Michelle Paré


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