As anyone who caught her Tony-winning turn in “The History Boys” will attest, Frances de la Tour, high priestess of droll, could wring laughs out of reading an airline timetable. You might imagine that playing long-suffering maid Bertha in a farce named “Boeing Boeing” could require her to do just that. Mercifully, Marc Camoletti’s ’60s sensation offers far meatier comic opportunities, which de la Tour seizes with a glowing glower. Better yet, the rest of the well-nigh immaculate cast gives her a run for her money, making the show deliriously funny.
In place of a plot, there’s a premise. Suave architect Bertrand (Roger Allam), dedicated to pleasure, is having three simultaneous affairs with Gloria (Tamzin Outhwaite), Gabriella (Daisy Beaumont) and Gretchen (Michelle Gomez).
None of the women know about the others, each is his fiancee, and, conveniently, all of them work as airline cabin crew on different flight schedules.
So far, so sexist. But as Rob Howell’s sleek apartment set exquisitely indicates with glass-and-chrome tables and white Barcelona chairs, we’re not just in Paris, we’re back in the 1960s. The three women are so glamorous, Bernard’s hick-from-the-sticks friend Robert (Mark Rylance) gasps in pole-axed disbelief as he discovers, “They’re all air-hostesses?”
With Bertha on hand to serve breakfast pancakes for Gloria, saltimbocca for lunch with Gabriella and sauerkraut for supper with Gretchen, what could possibly go wrong? The answer is, of course, everything.
In classic farce fashion, events spiral out of control as flight changes and delays threaten to expose the triple duplicity. And the more everyone tries to cover up and control the ensuing chaos, the funnier it grows.
Everything depends on the precision of the comic playing and, happily, director Mathew Warchus has a first-class cast.
Allam has a positively serpentine smoothness. Deliciously smug, he oils his way through until, faced with the ghastly realization that his separate worlds are colliding, his body goes into spasms.
Rylance, whose Hamlet in the 1980s placed him among the finest classical actors of his generation, is matchlessly funny as Robert, who has the benign, innocent warmth of Charlie Chaplin. Terrified but, to his utter consternation, turned on by being left to handle the women, Robert’s entire body warms up like whiskey. He’s at his hilarious best opposite Gomez and de la Tour.
With upswept hair lacquered within an inch of its life, Gomez repeatedly brings the house down as Gretchen. With physical zest, strangulated guttural vowels and flashing-eyed seriousness, she delivers the greatest comedy German since Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein.”
The high point, however, is Rylance’s big scene with long-suffering de la Tour.
The shimmer of the production lifts the stereotypical characters into comedy orbit.
The original London production ran over 2,000 performances, a trifle compared to the astonishing French run of 19 years. Its Broadway engagement, however, lasted a mere 21 perfs. With U.S. producers already on board, Warchus’ team appears to have its sights set on correcting that wrong. They should start booking their flights.