Fasten Your Seatbelts

Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s ‘Boeing Boeing’ is a fun-filled bumpy ride.

Marc Camoletti’s sex farce Boeing Boeing first touched down in America in 1965, where it proved that there was still a cultural Maginot Line between the theater worlds of Europe and America. It was a hit in France (Camoletti is the best selling French playwright worldwide), a knockout in London, but ran for a pitiful 23 performances on Broadway. This didn’t stop Brit director Matthew Warchus (born a year after the play’s ignominious debut), who brought the show back to Broadway and created a spectacular comic bauble. He had the help of talents like Christine Baranski, Bradley Whitford, and particularly, Mark Rylance, who won a Tony for his performance as the hapless Wisconsinite who comes to visit his old college chum, Bernard, and becomes ensnared in his romantic roundelay.

Restaging Boeing Boeing for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, director Michael Cotey knows not to fuss with a good thing. The MCT production has the look, feel and much of the comic business of the 2008 New York staging. And while the performances don’t quite reach the manic genius of Rylance and company, Cotey’s cast find some dazzling moments in a good old-fashioned door-slammer.

Here’s the setup: Bernard (Brian J. Gill) is a confirmed bachelor who nonetheless is “engaged” to three separate stewardesses (no need for PC terminology here), whom he has chosen partially because of their flight schedules. Each one has a two day layover in Paris on different days of the week, so he can manage his “trigamy” with the help of airline schedules, and a conspiratorial live-in, Berthe (Marcella Kearns), who tailors her cooking and decorating to each fiancée. Needless to say, each woman–an America (Anne Walaszek), an Italian (Amber Smith), and a German (Samantha Sostarich)–is convinced that Bernard is hers alone. When Bernard’s nebbishy pal, Robert (Ryan Schabach), comes to visit, he’s drawn in to the scheme, which turns into chaos when all the gals end up in Paris at the same time.

Marcella Kearns, Ryan Schabach and Amber Smith Photo by Paul Ruffalo
Marcella Kearns, Ryan Schabach and Amber Smith. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

There are plenty of manic entrances and exits, as the two men (and Berthe) try to keep the women from bumping in to each other. And there are some great physical moments. But the best comedy comes not from pratfalls or door-slams, but from well-timed one-liners and subtle glances. Schabach has great fun with these, using an aw-shucks persona and an array of puzzled looks to put him at the center of the maelstrom. But real eye of the hurricane is Kearns, who delivers an object lesson in deadpan reactions and great physical comedy with a distinctive less-is-more approach. Her slump-shouldered, world-weary Berthe is one of the best comic turns I’ve seen in a while.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.