by Eric Ginsburg
Boeing Boeing, a comedic play that opened at Winston-Salem’s Hanesbrands Theatre last week and runs through this weekend, rests on the premise that monogamy is for suckers. That, and the suspension of disbelief over the quality of soundproofing in Bernard’s apartment.
Bernard, a dashing American architect living in Paris, has found what brings true happiness: three women from different nations, all flight attendants and all his betrothed.
“If you’re going to get married, you ought to get married my way — polygamy!” he advises his old friend Robert, who refers to Bernard’s secret arrangement as “an international harem.”
The plot doesn’t actually involve marriage. Smooth-talking Bernard has determined that prolonged — indeed indefinite — engagements is the key, providing all the benefits of tying the knot without the drawbacks. With conflicting and closely monitored flight schedules, what could possibly go wrong?
Rapper 2 Chainz extols a similar set up in one of his lyrics — “Thug life, one wife a mistress and a girlfriend,” — but here, the audience has the benefit of watching Bernard’s bravado collapse around him.
And indeed it does, though in several unexpected ways. Faster plane times aid the descent, throwing Bernard’s meticulous scheduling of the revolving door to his apartment out of whack. As the play progresses, the tension continues to rise. At one point Bernard’s love interests all occupy different rooms of his apartment at once, somehow almost entirely unable to hear each other. Almost.
The fall is inevitable despite efforts by Bernard’s maid Berthe and Robert — the play’s most likeable characters — to stave it off. Therein lies Boeing Boeing’s appeal: schadenfreude.
Ultimately a story about stubborn women and idiotic men, part of the play’s genius is that the audience knows that the situation is untenable. It’s obvious that it must build to some dissolution, allowing for a level of anticipation while simultaneously defying expectations about the specifics of the narrative.
The situational humor is fueled tremendously by Robert, played by Jamie Smithson, Bernard’s nerdy friend with an occasional Wisconsin accent. Somewhere between Urkel and Larry David, Robert is constantly squirming and gesticulating — and later scheming — as he finds himself in deeply unfamiliar territory.
Several of his moments proved most memorable, including his imitations of Bernard, attempts at wooing women, reaction to drinking whiskey and lack of skill at improvising lies to cover Bernard’s messy tracks.
Berthe can hardly take the whole affair.
“This is no life for a maid,” she exclaims. “I like fun but this place, it goes too far.”
No Rules Theatre Company is a dual-city crew, with feet firmly planted in both Winston-Salem and Washington, DC. Several members of the team for Boeing Boeing, including director Matt Cowart and artistic director Joshua Morgan, graduated from UNC School of the Arts. UNCSA grad Nick Kowalczyk makes his debut with the company in this play, starring as Bernard.
The whole thing is pretty over the top, especially the accents. Fiancé Gloria, played by Sherry Berg, is a New Yorker who sounds like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny,” while German Gretchen (Sarah Olmsted Thomas) is histrionic in every regard. Like their counterpart, the Italian Gabriella (Jenna Berk), the adoration and flair add layers of entertainment.
Gretchen’s intensity is terrifying — she’s something like a campy Miss Trunchbull from Matilda — but her dramatics helped her stand out as the funniest fiancé (barring a scene where Gloria douses a pancake with ketchup before eating it).
“I’m mad with happiness, Berthe, mad with happiness!” Gretchen proclaims amidst a tear through the Paris apartment, at one point assailing Robert and also collapsing to the floor.
People loved it. The audience chuckled frequently throughout and howled with laughter at several points. Even at the first preview performance, two days before last week’s grand opening, the house was packed. As the audience filed out of the theater at the end, one woman’s overheard comments succinctly summed up the mood in the room.
“I would see that again, wouldn’t you?” she asked a friend. “But it felt a little long, didn’t it?”
And then a minute later, in agreement: “It was hilarious.”