Three stewardesses — one German, one Italian and one American — walk into an apartment in Paris.
What sounds like the setup for a joke better left untold is in fact the setup for “Boeing Boeing,” a play that opens Sept. 20 at The Merc Playhouse.
The English-language version of “Boeing Boeing,” by French playwright Marc Camoletti, was first staged in 1962. The play’s premise is, how do you say—à propos to its time.
An American living in Paris gleefully juggles three fiancées, all stewardesses — or air hostesses, as they were called at the time. None of them know about the other two, of course. Bernard, the American, played by Peter Mathews of Manson, intends to keep up his polyamorous lifestyle indefinitely.
The air hostesses — the Italian Gabriella (played by Nicole Leese of Omak), the American Gloria (Tani Erickson) and the German Gretchen (Sharla Lynn) — all express their nationalities with stereotypical vigor. Rounding out the cast are Bernard’s French housekeeper, Berthe (Renda Grim), and his naïve friend from Wisconsin, Robert (Mike Schiesser).
Mathews and Leese, the only two cast members from outside the Methow Valley, both bring a wealth of theater experience to their roles.
With a setup like that, what could possibly go wrong? That depends on whether you’re asking about the action onstage or the reactions from the audience.
“Boeing Boeing” is a farce, so plenty does go wrong in the complicated romantic life Bernard has erected for himself. As for the audience, director Kelly Donoghue suggested they stick it out and see what happens.
“Theater is supposed to be on the edge and risk-taking,” said Donoghue, while acknowledging that his approach to theater often doesn’t jibe with the current culture of political correctness.
“Society as a whole can’t laugh at themselves, can’t laugh at anything,” Donoghue said. “It can’t be frivolous — which is wrong.”
That said, the director thinks “Boeing Boeing” will satisfy even the most unfrivolous theatergoers — as long as they don’t leave during intermission.
“The interesting thing about this play is the way it’s written,” he said. “If you stay for the whole play, you will see that in the end the men are the buffoons and the women are not.”
What has made the play so successful over the decades has less to do with how it’s written and more with how it’s acted. The 2008 Broadway version earned two Tony Awards thanks in large part to the cast’s deft handling of the physical comedy.
Interviewed two weeks before opening night, Donoghue said the cast would be working on its timing during the remaining rehearsals.
“There is a fair amount of physical comedy,” Donoghue said. “We’re working on it diligently now, and we’re turning the corner on it as we speak.”
“I expect it to be as good as anything I’ve done so far.”
Donoghue has had it in mind to stage “Boeing Boeing” ever since he directed the play’s companion piece, another work by Camoletti called “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” for the Methow Valley Theater more than 10 years ago.
“It’s a comedic farce of mistaken identity,” Donoghue said of Camoletti’s other play. “We blew them out of the water with that.”
But after “Boeing Boeing” won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Revival, the play went on a national tour and wasn’t available to community theaters. Donoghue had to put “Boeing Boeing” in a holding pattern, until now.
Donoghue only had the opportunity to stage “Boeing Boeing” this fall because the play he was going to direct, “Lend Me a Tenor,” was changed by its license holder in the wake of national blackface scandals earlier this year.
In some productions of “Lend Me a Tenor,” actors put on blackface to perform parts of Verdi’s opera “Otello.” After two state officials in Virginia who are white admitted to wearing blackface in college, the theater company that holds the license for “Tenor” changed the “Otello” character to the clown from “I Pagliacci” — a change Donoghue couldn’t abide.
In any case, Donoghue was to have the two tenors don fake beards to enact the mistaken identity in that play.
“Ironically, [Boeing Boeing] is probably more politically incorrect than the one that got pulled,” Donoghue said.
Audiences will get to decide for themselves, starting Sept. 20. That said, Donoghue took the opportunity to prime the audience’s expectations:
“I’m trying to keep a light flavor on it,” he said. “It’s a comedic farce. It’s lighthearted, and it’s funny in a constant way.”