Like a plane in a holding pattern, the comedy “Boeing Boeing” is slowly circling Washington. Last season it was at Rep Stage in Columbia, and now this French farce about a calculating bachelor and his three stewardesses is briefly alighting in Arlington in a No Rules Theatre production that departs for North Carolina (the southern hub of No Rules) in July.
If the swinging premise is just too Jerry Lewis for you — and Marc Camoletti’s aggressively zany 1960 play became a 1965 Lewis movie — you’re excused. And if you’ve seen “Boeing Boeing” before, your frequent flier miles might not reward another look. It’s an old-school sex farce with lots of stammering and jabbering as Bernard, the American bachelor, and his increasingly eager sidekick Robert (a nerd from Wisconsin) try to keep the three women from finding out about each other. The set — the cad’s Paris apartment — is practically all doors, ideal for near misses and sudden shouts that amount to “No! Don’t go in there!”
The play was revitalized in the United States by the 2008 Broadway production from London that earned Mark Rylance his first Tony Award. Director Matt Cowart’s production often works a little too hard at the hijinks; it feels breathless as it tries to wrench laughs out of the scenario.
When it clicks, though, it’s often because Jamie Smithson, as Robert, strikes a blissful little seam of physical absurdity. Smithson plays Robert with a hint of Ed Grimley’s twisted stance, if you recall that Martin Short character; he even channels a bit of the Grimley cadence and is unafraid of Jim Carrey-like whiplash outbursts and manic grins.
Too much? Sometimes, but when he scampers like an anxious giraffe around the small set (the show is in Signature Theatre’s 110-seat Ark), Smithson’s pretty funny. And the script seems to reward excess, at least when the surplus is properly calibrated. The long first act of this 2 1 / 2-hour show doesn’t really ignite with giggles until Sarah Olmsted Thomas storms in and bites off sauerbraten-flavored punch lines as Gretchen, the imperial yet sensitive German stewardess, and it’s Thomas’s game loopiness that makes it work.
All three women are tempestuous, with international variations. Sherry Berg is New Yawk cheesecake as Gloria, the American, and she has some very amusing business regarding kissing technique with Robert. Jenna Berk is Gabriella, the Italian, zestfully tossing out accusatory lines like “What’s-a theeess Lufthansa bag a-doin’ here?”
Helen Hedman is an effective French grump as the disapproving maid, but there isn’t much interesting for Nick Kowalczyk to do as Bernard, the increasingly cornered playboy. Once the scheme is set up, keeping it up falls to Robert, the fish out of water, a rube in a den of minxes. The script will remind you of the mix-ups that “Frasier” used to hone to a high, happy farcical polish. This conniption-riddled “Boeing” has some of that lift, but with a little too much jolting turbulence along the way.
By Marc Camoletti. Directed by Matt Crowart. Scenic design, John Bowhers; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; sound design, Derek Knoderer; lights, Travis McHale. About 2 1 / 2 hours. Through June 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit norulestheatre.org .