“Cheerful greetings!” So begins a festive email from my London son. “It’s day #4 of our much anticipated vacation, and we are quite pleased with how things are going.” Here’s how they are going: my son and his partner spent the weekend on the floor of Heathrow airport in the midst of Europe’s worst travel debacle in decades. Then they cunningly decided to slip out via Amsterdam, but now are marooned in Holland where mechanical failures, misplaced baggage, and planes slithering over the icy tarmac have delayed their departure another twelve hours. But who needs Bali when you can be seated in a crowded terminal with trashy magazines, bags of junk food, and six thousand unsent bags?
Let us leave this dismal too familiar scene and travel to another place, another time, when airports did not resemble refugee camps, when planes took off and arrived exactly on schedule, when air hostesses were hand-picked dream girls in tailored suits there for the asking. Ah! Let’s go to springtime in Paris, 1965, to the home of the successful handsome architect Bernard who’s got a good thing going. It’s better than good; it’s perfect. Thanks to the infallible reliability of airline schedules, Bernard can easily manage his three air hostess fiancées, Gloria from TWA, Gabriella from Air Italia, and Gretchen from Lufthansa. They are all fantastic girls, and why have only one gorgeous girlfriend when you can have three? As Bernard says, “Three is the ideal number. Less than three would be monotonous. More than three would be terribly tiring. Three is the dream.” And thanks to the airline timetable, Bernard’s dream has come true. Gloria takes off and fifteen minutes later Gabriella arrives; two days later Gabriella is off to Caracas, Gloria is in San Francisco, and Gretchen arrives from Stuttgart. You can see the beauty of it. As Bernard says, “it’s pure mathematics. Everything designed, organized, regulated, and working to the precise second. The earth revolves on its axis and my fiancées wheel above the earth. One this way. One that. One towards the sun. One towards the moon. And eventually they all, in turn, come home to me.”
As you can tell this isn’t Paris anymore, it isn’t 1965, it isn’t any actual place on earth. Bernard’s perfected polygamy can be played out only on a planet of pure fiction—one that is now swimming into view on the stage of our theater. And even there Bernard’s ideal dreamscape won’t last long. That’s not because reality intrudes. It’s because Bernard is a preening peacock living on a planet called farce, which means he’s about to go down. The clockmaker gods of this solar system deliberately design perfect worlds so they can deliriously self destruct. And things don’t just fall apart in farce, they spiral logically into total chaos. Such is life on planet Boeing Boeing. You hardly notice it at first. An old friend of Bernard’s arrives from the country. The airlines introduce a newer, faster jet. Then suddenly there are two fiancées in the house. Then three, a number whose possibilities are soon geometric. The well meaning country friend wants to help with the hostess management crisis, and there’s a very capable maid on hand too. But it isn’t easy having three fiancées on hand, especially when each thinks she’s the only one. Midway through the play all seven doors are rapidly opening and closing and we have come to where all good farces go. We are in a blissful universe of infinite absurdity.
It must be said that farce has not always enjoyed a good reputation. It’s corny, it’s low. Farce characters tend to be all too recognizable stereotypes. In Boeing Boeing we meet the city slicker and his country cousin, the long suffering maid, the healthy sexy American girl, the gushy sexy Italian girl, the dominating sexy German girl. But what of that? Stereotypes can be irritating, but they can also ring true—there actually are city slickers, country cousins, sexy Italians, and more importantly these stereotypes are all fun to act. Good farce is an invitation for great comic actors--- in fact it demands them— actors with definition, timing, invention, physicality, precise control, and utter abandon. A good director helps too. The chaotic clockwork of farce demands fine precise working parts ready to go completely haywire, and someone to wind them up tight. We have been at pains to recruit just these ingredients. We have looked at careful blueprints and made our plans. We think our Boeing Boeing isn’t just a clock—it’s the bomb.
This is not a play with serious undertones; in fact it’s a play with no undertones at all. As one critic complained, “farce is comedy with the meaning left out.” Actually it’s not easy to create plays drained entirely of meaning; meaning is almost inevitable. But pure farce succeeds at something close to meaninglessness --- at its best, in a brilliant farce like Noises Off, there’s nothing more meaningful than doors and sardines. Farce actually doesn’t want to be contaminated with meaning. It wants to live in its unique atmosphere of acceleration and mathematically compounding slapstick.
And what happens when you breathe the air on this strange rarefied planet? You marvel and you laugh. Good farces in the hands of good actors are just about the most reliable laugh machines ever made. Laughter, said Henri Bergson in a famous essay, is the result of “the mechanical encrusted on the human.” He was a Frenchman and he might have been describing the rather particular comedy of farce, whose native home is France. Bergson was thinking of Moliere, but his thesis applies equally well to Georges Feydeau, farceur extraordinaire, and to Marc Camoletti, the French author of Boeing Boeing. The classic ingredients —precision, logic, irrationality, and sex— are combined both in the French character and in French farce (the term itself comes from the French “farcire” meaning “to stuff”).
Is it because it is French that farce has not always found a welcome here in America? It’s tempting to think so. Boeing Boeing ran for a total of nineteen performances in its 1965 debut—it ran for seven years in London (those Brits love their farces). But the 2008 production was an American hit and a Tony award winning revival. The difference was the production—brilliant performances by a genius comic cast led by Mark Rylance and directed by Matthew Warchus.
We saw the show in London and it was funny, achingly funny. We had a hunch a great revival would be funny in Colorado Springs, too. And that’s more than enough, because funny is good for you. In case you missed it, research shows laughter boosts the immune system, increases blood circulation, and reduces stress—really, we should charge doctor’s fees for this show. That ultimate authority, Wikipedia, defines laughter as the audible expression of inward joy. What’s better than that? Well, better than that is laughter shared with others in the Bon Vivant Theater.
I am hopeful my son finally gets out of town and rests happily on a Bali beach. Bali might be worth four days in a frozen airport. But I urge you to heed his cautionary tale and spare yourself trouble and expense. I would suggest you cancel all your travel plans and book only a trip to Boeing Boeing. It’s nearby, comfortable, and on schedule. The ensuing chaos will be every bit as insane as Heathrow in holiday snow, but this chaos is sexier and a lot more fun. As hard as it is to believe, air travel in the Bon Vivant will produce only audible expressions of inward joy.
Boeing, Boeing plays January 20-February 13
Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
Performances at 4:00 p.m. on Sundays
Saturday Matinees on January 29, February 5 & 12