There once was a time when men looked to Hugh Hefner and Ian Fleming for moral guidance, when waitresses wore bunny ears at the Playboy Club and “girls” (not “women”) had only to look at James Bond to know that a perfectly soul-satisfying one-night stand was in their future. Nostalgia for the mid-’60s is still rife, as is clear to anyone conscious of Mad Men. Call them the LBJ years, or when Dino walked the earth.
Now you’ve got another opportunity to travel back to this Simpler Time: it’s called Boeing Boeing, and it’s playing at the Jaeb Theatre of Tampa’s Straz Center for another month. The story it tells is about ’60s rake Bernard, a horny young Frenchman who has three air hostess fiancées: Gloria the American (TWA), Gabriella the Italian (Alitalia) and Gretchen the German (Lufthansa). None of the women knows about the others, and in fact Bernard has no intention of marrying any of them: fiancées, he explains, are a lot friskier than wives.
Helping him juggle all these liaisons is his maidservant and cook Berthe, who is necessarily an expert on three cuisines, even though she finds Bernard’s life distasteful. And helping him keep all three women in the dark is his old friend, the hyper-nerd Robert, whose assistance proves invaluable when all three fiancées converge — as the Law Of Sex Farce demands they do — on overwhelmed Bernard’s Paris flat. Can Bernard and his allies keep the three stewardesses from meeting one another? Or will Bernard’s subterfuges be revealed in one deafening female explosion?
The original version of this French comedy came to Broadway in 1965, and as you might guess, the play still has all the defects of its era. Women here are sex objects first and foremost, and not even the imperious Gretchen would know what to do with an intellect. At least Mad Men occasionally shows us the cost of all that rampant ’60s male chauvinism; but Boeing Boeing treats its women as contented bimbos never conscious that their search for an M.R.S. degree may still leave them short-changed. Even so, there are some genuinely funny moments à la Feydeau: with seven doorways, four women (including Berthe), two men, and one big secret, there are a few genuinely hilarious peaks of anxious action.
Unfortunately, as directed by Greg Leaming, every character here, with perhaps the exception of Bernard (the likable Jonthan Van Dyke), is played as pure cardboard cutout. So Gloria (Amy Garton) is all American energy, Gabriella (Nicole Abisinio) is all Italian sensuality, and Gretchen (Amy E. Gray) is a barking, demanding Teutonic tyrant. Even Eduardo Sicangco’s costumes for the three air hostesses are, respectively, blue, green and yellow, as if only such color-coding could keep them separate in our little minds.
There are two truly problematic performances: Justin Lore plays Robert as a bizarrely coiffed silly-voiced oddball out of American Pie, and the usually delightful Dana Kovar plays Berthe as so unremittingly sour, you want to beg her to smile. Judy Gallen’s set of an upscale Paris apartment is sharply attractive, though, and it’s truly fun to watch characters run in and out of those doorways with perfect timing. If the comedy weren’t so palpably sexist, this could be one funny farce.
But it is, so it isn’t. Boeing Boeing, occurring nearer in time to us than classic French farce, is mostly embarrassing as it reminds us that only a few decades ago, women with potential as great as any man’s were trained to see themselves only as sex-providers and breeders. This is painful to witness, as are the male characters who should know better. We may not have advanced far enough beyond these depictions, but we’re sufficiently ahead to find Bernard less than amusing. Lies are lies and a harem is a harem. Boeing Boeing is regrettable.