Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo
Writer: Marc Camoletti, translated from the French by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans
Scenery & Costumes: Rob Howell
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Music: Claire Van Kampen
Starring: Christine Baranski (Berthe), Mark Rylance (Robert), Bradley Whitford (Bernard), Gina Gershon (Gabriella), Kathryn Hahn (Gloria) and Mary McCormack (Gretchen) | NB: for the performance reviewed, understudy for "Berthe" was Pipa Perthree
Rating: Death Star blows up planets!
The plot is simple: playboy Bernard, living in Paris, is dating three different air hostesses, working for different airlines. He is engaged to all three, and thanks to the crack timetables in the early 1960, they ne'er do meet. His housekeeper, Berthe, has to prepare different cuisines, and prepare the bedroom and bathroom for each of the women (she changes photos, towels, flowers you can tell which is expected by the color of the rose in the vase). If two should arrive, Berthe covers for her boss by saying he's out of town on business to one, while Bernard takes the other to his country place.
All the action takes place over the period of one day, and in one room. There are only six characters. Special effects are nonexistent, simpliy entailing some lights to depict morning and afternoon. Yet the performance is rich and hearty, and fulfills its promise as a comedy, in that the whole audience was laughing uproariously for nearly the full time.
This mid-'60s era farce was rejected by Broadway viewers during its first run in 1965, though it has been doing well on London's West End. A huge number of producers have backed this particular depiction, which seems to say more about Mark Rylance, the acclaimed Shakespearian actor who plays Robert, a school-era chum of Bernard. Rylance is the classical sad clown with great body language (and yes, he's from the UK, but he's got the laconic American Wisconsin accent down really well). He's been compared favorably with Buster Keaton, and when he left the London show, people noticed that change in quality of the presentation immediately. He's the subtle soul of this show, and he has a Tony award in recognition.
All the cast members have their timing down in what obviously is a practiced and internalized rhythm. And it feels natural, with no awkward "uh oh's" or "don't!" in anticipation.
The surprise is that the characters have to be played flat and predictably. Everyone is a stereotype the aging French housekeeper who hates being a maid, the sultry Italian, the needy Valkyrie, the grating American. The two men, Robert and Bernard, are stuck in a pool of estrogen, trying to show mastery of their fates. It all pans out the way the women want it to, which, in the end, is what the men want, too.
The laughter came naturally, too. The whole audience was laughing very un-selfconsciously. One of us, who doesn't show much emotion at the theatre or even at movies, was laughing so hard tears were flowing!
It was a wonderful surprise of a production. All the actors were wonderful. In the one we saw, Christine Baranski was absent and her role was capably filled by Pipa Pearthree; if we hadn't known Baranski was supposed to be one of the stars, we never would have noticed. There were an awful lot of irate tourists who'd come just to watch Baranski, and were demanding their money back from the box office. (They were disappointed, of course; the theatre reserves the right to make substitutions without warning or explanation. But they do announce the substitution in their playbills and in a board opposite the box office. Those demanders were really annoying, and they should stick to watching DVDs at home!)
Baranski was obviously cast as a draw, but it was Rylands who really was the master of the show. Despite the age of the two men, they really did evoke younger successful businessmen who lived in a time when beautiful women in sexy uniforms vied for their attention. Bernard was Steve Martin-esque, without the grating other-worldiness that can come with emulating that great comedian.
We loved all three air hostesses, but our favorite was Mary McCormick, who played the Lufthansa employee, Gretchen. All the national stereotypes you grew up with were displayed here with great finesse. It takes someone from some other nationality to depict yours accurately, and the Irish-named McCormick was a perfect über-fraülein, complete with garbled dialect delivered in a shout and a holler (there is a difference!). And Gina Gershon a woman of French, Russian, and Dutch origin played the gorgeous and irresistable Italian Gabriella. She was the most sensual looking of the three, in her blue Alitalia uniform.
Kathryn Hahn played the New York girl with the Jewish touch, and she and McCormick used wide-legged stances and (to some audience members' delight) pranced around and treated the crowd to many a crotch-shot. What men could find these brunhildes and miss americas resistable? That's Bernard's notion he loves them all equally, he admits. He cannot stand to spoil one without spoiling all three. And when they push for marriage, Bernard cannot say no. And thus his current situation.
Once new Boeing aircrafts are put into service, Bernard's carefully studied airline timetables will no longer help him. What was one easy to keep separate, now becomes mixed and overlapped. And suddenly, he finds he can no longer guarantee that any of his three fiances will come "home" when they other two are out. And of course, that's where the comedy will emanate. What could be uncomfortable is instead hysterical and sympathetic.
The theatre, as is typical, is tiny, fitting about 500 people at most. So you are close to the action, and microphones are really not necessary. It's a much more intimate experience and a real treat to see a truly professional, skilled cast who seem to love their work.
We hadn't heard of this play before, despite movies being made based on this French slapstick. We are so happy to have been alerted, and would even consider seeing it again at its $100+ pricetag. It's really that good! Wish Broadway shows were recorded for future viewing. What a spoiled audience we are! Like Bernard and Robert, we should be happy to have what we are offered. And ultimately, that's really what we want, too.
Production images from www.boeingonbroadway.com
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