A TALE OF TWO SILLIES
by John Topping
published May 16, 2008
now playing on Broadway at the Longacre Theater
The 39 Steps
now playing on Broadway at the Cort Theater
Comedy is a funny thing.
I can remember three (3) distinct instances when something seemed funny once and then, on a subsequent viewing, not
so. Case 1: I had seen the movie What’s Up, Doc? at least three (3) times and considered it one of the funniest films ever
made. One day I rented it on video and was excited to show it to my brothers. However, none of us cracked a smile, and they looked at me with extreme confusion as to why I’d
ever found it funny. Was it the lack of a bigger audience? Perhaps, but then consider Case 2: I saw the movie Airplane! at least five (5) times when it was in theaters.
At one of those screenings, the audience I was with didn’t find it particularly funny, and their lack of responding to it affected my
enjoyment of it. I had to see one (1) more time just to make sure that it really was funny (it was). Case 3: I thought the movie Meet The Parents was so
horrifically horrible and the humor so off-the-mark that I walked out of the theater in disgust after fifteen (15) minutes. But then one day it was on cable and my sister was watching it and laughing hysterically, so I started
watching it with her and laughed hysterically, too. And BONUS! Case 4: I was a Monty Python freak in my teenage years and saw Monty
Python and the Holy Grail at least twelve (12) times in a theater. My partner had seen it
and didn’t find it or Monty Python in general very amusing at all. Even so, I dragged him to
see Spamalot on Broadway, which is based on MPatHG.
Can guess what happened? Yep, I barely cracked a smile while he busted a gut
Perhaps you should keep that in mind when I tell you about two Broadway plays that are heavy on the wacky,
over-the-top humor. Let me start with The 39 Steps, which just reopened at the Cort for
an open run after vacating the American Airlines Theater for a strictly limited engagement.
There I sat, stone-faced, while people around me were laughing and semi-involuntarily saying out loud, “Brilliant!” as they clapped their
hands in delight. Based on the film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock (which was based on
other source material), this adaptation by Patrick Barlow follows the plot scene by scene, almost exactly. Even a good portion of the dialogue is often verbatim. But
the aim of the adaptation is not so much to tell the story in theatrical terms as to use the story as a canvas on which to paint – or
impose, I would say – the broad comedic style he decided to use.
The story is of a dashingly handsome Canadian visitor (played by Charles Edwards) to the United
Kingdom who becomes wrongfully accused of a murder, whereupon he embarks on a steady stream of narrow escapes as he is chased by the police
while desperately trying to prove his innocence. In that it jumps quickly from scene to scene
to scene, lots of imagination must be employed in transforming the stage into a cinematic experience before your eyes. Sometimes the sets serve double duty, such as a row of trunks that initially suggest the seats of a train
compartment and then seconds later are used as the top of the same train; sometimes simple pantomime is employed; and – because there are
dozens of supporting roles – the remaining characters are all played by the other three actors, Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff
Saunders (mostly the latter two). There is occasionally a break of the fourth wall when it is
acknowledged that they are actors playing characters in a play; sometimes “mistakes” are made
on purpose; and an anything-goes spirit allows these transformations to range from the
extremely inventive to the faux-embarrassingly shoddy.
Despite its cleverness, the overall he effect is akin to someone who isn’t naturally funny trying really hard to
make you laugh; and it is so very pleased with itself for the success it imagines it achieves
(and which, for many, it does). It practically screams, “Are we having fun yet?!” while
winking at and elbowing us from the stage. But it sure would have been nice if they told the
story more and tried to make us laugh less. In fact, the best moments are the rare scenes when
the pace is slowed down and no one is trying particularly hard to be funny. During these
cherished brief interludes, it – and we – can finally breathe; but alas, they are short-lived to make way for more “fun.”
Moving on (as quickly as possible).
Most Americans who have heard of Boeing, Boeing probably know it as a
tedious, unfunny comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis. Despite the incidents mentioned
in the opening of this review, I’m fairly certain that it would be universally agreed upon that it’s … let’s see, ‘awful’ doesn’t even
begin to describe it. ‘Unwatchable’ comes much closer. In fact, if you’ve ever tried to sit through it, chances are you never made it past the first 15
minutes. It would then come as no surprise to learn that the original Broadway production of
Boeing, Boeing in 1965 ran for a scant 23 performances before closing – but hey, that’s 23 times longer than the recent flop
Glory Days. So one might understandably have been
quite surprised to learn that a Broadway revival was coming to town; then less so after learning that it had been revived in
London to overwhelmingly glowing reviews. So come, let us see what they have done with this
Actually, it’s not quite as obscure a comedy as we – or, at least, I –
thought. The original West End production, for instance, ran for 7 years; it was listed in the
1991 Guinness Book of World Records (yet apparently never before or since) as the most-performed French play throughout the world
(by Mark Camoletti, translated for the stage by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans); and it has been adapted to film a total of 4
times. It’s a tight little farce about a Paris bachelor of American descent named Bernard
(Bradley Whitford) who is engaged to three different stewardesses of three different airlines and three different
nationalities. Each has her own key to the apartment and is utterly unaware of the other two’s
existences. This is because Bernard has carefully acquired the courtships based on an airline
industry friend’s recommendations of their beauty and the coordination of their flight schedules, which never overlap. With the reluctant aid of his churlish maid, Berthe (Christine Baranski), he makes changes to his
apartment accordingly to pull off this scam, with no intention of actually marrying any of them. His old stick-in-the-mud, unlucky-in-love pal from Wisconsin, Robert (Mark Rylance), has dropped into
town and is invited to stay overnight. Robert is amazed, bedazzled and frightened of the
lifestyle he is seeing before him. And then, naturally and inevitably, circumstances fall into
place that cause all three women to be in the apartment at the same time.
One must imagine that when it flopped on Broadway 40+ years ago, some reviewer
somewhere must have used the headline, “Boring, Boring.” This time around, however – even though
I’ve never seen another production of it – it’s hard to imagine that it could ever have been better. There is one truly inspired performance, and at least two more that are merely brilliant.
The inspired performance is by Mark Rylance as the nebbish friend. Anyone not finding the wacky shenanigans funny (and they certainly exist) can salvage their evening simply
by concentrating all attention on him. His transformation from a repressed, shut-down dud to a
man discovering his sensual awakening as it opens up and grows before our eyes is something to behold. He employs quite a bit of crotch grabbing for easy laughs – and gets them – but it happens one or two
times too often. Nevertheless, acting students are encouraged to find a way to get
tickets. On the other hand, if you’re not interested in the art of acting, he plays bland so
well that you may think him ordinary and unremarkable.
As for the merely brilliant performances, there is, first of all, Mary McCormack as Gretchen, the intensely insecure
German stewardess who can’t live a second without being validated by Bernard’s love. Though
her performance is stylized – she often stands in a bracing pose like a minotaur ready to attack – she gains comic mileage with character
enhancements that probably weren’t in the script. The other is Kathryn Hahn as Gloria, the
delightfully brash American stewardess who comes to believe that Robert is … different; you know, doesn’t go for girls. So she finds it perfectly innocent – not unfaithful to Bernard – to insist on practicing and getting
feedback on her deep tongue kissing techniques. The preparation, attack and behavioral
aftermath of each kiss were the comic highlights of the evening for me.
Many might also make a case that Christine Baranski and Gina Gershon, who plays
Gabriella, the Italian stewardess, are also brilliant, and I wouldn’t want to argue about it.
The only performance that lacks any ingenuity is Whitford as the three-timing suitor in the kind of uninteresting but necessary role that is
usually relegated to a woman.
No matter. It’s the swingin’ 60s, baby, and the atmosphere is
intoxicating. The set (by Rob Howell) is what you can imagine as a subdued Austin Powers
bachelor pad. It’s so groovy that there is even a groove literally worked into the wall, as
well as a carpet design that suggests the grooves of a vinyl record. The color coordination of
the costumes (also by Howell) is bold and dazzling. The stewardess uniforms are a vibrant red,
blue and mustard-yellow. At one point, when the matching travel bags get slung around Robert’s
shoulders and across his chest, the contrast of the straps to the ultra-drab clothes he wears is truly eye-popping.
Oh, about that title, just in case you don’t get it. Boeing is, of
course, the airplane manufacturer (when I was very small, I thought it must be a verb, and often wondered what it meant to
boe). It only recently hit me that it was a double entendre-esque, onomatopoeic
wordplay, if you will, in that it sounds like the cartoonish “Boing! Boing!” (to suggest the multiple pairs of boobs bouncing
around the stage?), or, since it was originally written in French, perhaps more along the lines of, “Bweeng, bweeng.” At its core, the play is actually very sweet and romantic, and you leave the theater feeling happy and
uplifted. That is, if you got into the spirit of it and found it funny. I’m here to testify that it’s much more fun being a member of
the group that laughs.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com