“Don’t you love farce?”
That’s the question, famously and ironically posed by Stephen Sondheim in his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” It’s also the question the U.S. producers of Broadway’s “Boeing-Boeing” must be asking.
Matthew Warchus’ 2007 London production was a critical and box office comedy triumph. So much so that talk of a Broadway transfer arose with unusual speed. But the play’s history must have given the show’s backers pause.
Marc Camoletti’s ’60s sex romp is the most successful French play ever written — the original production ran for a staggering 19 years in Paris. But when the 1962 hit London production played New York’s Cort Theater three years later, it totaled just 23 performances. Then there’s the lackluster 1965 movie, starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, which has not aged well, to put it kindly. Maybe Americans don’t love farce after all?
That’s absolutely not the view of Jeremy Sams, helmer of the 2001 Rialto transfer of his National Theater production of the greatest of British farces: Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.” Despite the slump caused by the 9/11 attacks that occurred during rehearsals, the production ran almost a year and won two Tonys.
Sams concedes that until “Noises Off,” farce was widely considered out of date or dead. The times, it was believed, were not suited to the rigid codes of behavior necessary for the characters’ grade-A jeopardy to work.
“Everyone in a farce is somewhere they should not be,” explains Sams. “But these days, there’s no longer the same scandal in, say, being caught having a mistress.”
He argues that “Noises Off” works by replacing the rigid codes of sexual behavior with the equally shared and absolute belief that the show must go on. “Whatever happens to them, everyone including the audience knows they simply have to carry on acting,” says Sams. “If they don’t, they become completely pointless.”
But unlike Frayn’s play, which adheres to the principles of farce even as it deconstructs them, “Boeing-Boeing,” which bows May 4,cleaves to the more old-fashioned rules of the genre.
Its plot concerns architect Bernard (Bradley Whitford) negotiating the comedy minefield of three simultaneous love affairs with flight attendants — back when they were called stewardesses — from American, Italian and German airlines. Via whiplash timing and frenetic exits and entrances through slamming doors, the play whips up perfect panic as everyone comically collides at precisely the wrong moment.
Warchus, however, believes there’s more to it than that. He says “Boeing-Boeing” is a one-off.
“Farces tend to be very funny en route and somewhat disappointing in the end,” he suggests. “The enjoyment of farce is based on the tangled knot becoming ever more tangled, but the resolution tends to be rather arbitrary. But the ending of ‘Boeing-Boeing’ is euphoric, and the key to that is romance — to that extent, it’s a romantic comedy.”
Part of this is purely structural, he argues.
“Romantic comedies tend to have some sort of miracle about four-fifths of the way through,” says Warchus. “Everything suddenly shifts to create a perfect resolution: And that’s what happens here.”
That degree of romance is another reason why the play is so appealing despite a plot description that sounds like the ultimate in dated sexism.
Warchus bristles at the charge.
“Show me four better parts for women — strong comic roles that dominate the stage,” he says of the flight attendants and his housekeeper (Christine Baranski). “If Bernard fell in love with bimbos, there would be no play and no point. But he falls in love with really strong women.”
Each of those women is a real handful.
“They’re tough, suspicious and watchful,” continues Warchus. “I’ve given them each a word: Gloria (Kathryn Hahn) is sex, Gabriella (Gina Gershon) is love, and Gretchen (Mary McCormack) is passion. I’ve asked them to be overwhelming in that word whenever they’re onstage. They’re powerful forces of nature circling these two amateurish guys. The play deals with both sexual and national stereotypes in such a big-hearted way that’s totally disarming. It’s actually about the folly of such things.”
Part of the reason the production worked so sharply in London was Warchus and company’s update of the 1960s translation of Camoletti’s French original. Indeed, the billing now reads “translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans.” Warchus even attributes the 1965 Broadway flop — which he is too young to have seen — to the fact that the original London script included the shtick of its British players, which is unlikely to have played well with New York auds.
For the Broadway cast, Warchus has retained only one member of the London ensemble, Mark Rylance, who was nominated for an Olivier award for his turn as Bernard’s hapless best friend.
“We don’t have much shtick: We’ve eliminated the routines,” he explains. “We play it in earnest rather than spoofing it. It’s all about situation and truth: That’s what creates the extreme tension and agony and, thus, the hilarity.”
Warchus’ views on directing farce chime exactly with those of Sams, whose own watchwords are precision and truth. Making that work, the latter argues, can be astonishingly complicated.
“I think of it as a rollercoaster,” says Sams. “It winds up very slowly as you lay out the laws, the rules of the game — before tipping over to the glorious ride down.”
But if that’s the case, why is it only Brits and Europeans still do farce?
They aren’t the only ones, Sams argues. “Look at ‘Seinfeld,’ or ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ or those episodes of ‘Frasier’ in the hunting lodge with couples being discovered in the wrong places — all the rules are beautifully observed.”
If farce in America is alive and well and living in sitcom, maybe “Boeing-Boeing” has finally got its timing right.