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In N.Y., Comedies Bursting the Seams

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

NEW YORK -- The comeback phenomenon on Broadway this year doesn't involve a person, but a reflex.

Yes, laughter is back in vogue, so robustly that for the first time ever, Tony voters last month recognized an out-and-out farce as the best revival of a play. That show, "Boeing-Boeing," and its unlikely star -- a pricelessly clueless Mark Rylance -- are leading a completely unserious campaign in the theater district for the belly laughs and billfolds of the Broadway playgoer.

"Boeing-Boeing," a '60s French farce that was adapted for the London stage and ran there for years, didn't catch on in its first appearance in New York in 1965. (It was made into a lame Jerry Lewis movie that same year.) The comedy -- about a scheming bachelor (here played by Bradley Whitford) living in Paris who juggles three marriage proposals to coquettish stewardesses for TWA (Kathryn Hahn), Alitalia (Gina Gershon) and Lufthansa (Mary McCormack) -- is silly in a guileless, all-in-good-sexy-fun sort of way.

Which may be why director Matthew Warchus's stylish handiwork at the Longacre Theatre is the right production for precisely the right moment. "Boeing-Boeing" causes an unknotting of the neck muscles and unknitting of the brow, the antidote for this gut-tightening juncture in American life. Put another way: The play transports you back to a more relaxed era, when people actually looked forward to the marvels of airline travel -- and weren't racked with guilt over the fate of the planet as they contemplated the impact of their carbon footprints.

The heyday of the traditional Broadway comedy faded with the career of Neil Simon, whose character-driven humor started to lose its luster as it became ever more widely imitated on sitcoms. In the 1980s and '90s, some funny plays continued to find a Broadway audience, thanks to the efforts of writers such as David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross"), Michael Frayn ("Noises Off"), Terrence McNally ("Love! Valour! Compassion!") and Yasmina Reza ("Art"). In 2000, Charles Busch succeeded with his "Tale of the Allergist's Wife.'' And as recently as the 2006-07 season, Douglas Carter Beane wrote a witty piece, "The Little Dog Laughed," that made it to Broadway, though it didn't last there long.

So it's been a while for a purely comic play to be both a critical and popular hit. (Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," the Tony-winning best play of 2006, fell somewhere between drama and comedy.) Nowadays it's far more typical for a musical -- "Hairspray,'' "Spamalot'' or "Xanadu,'' for example -- to roam free in the jungles of wackiness.

Has "Boeing-Boeing" tapped a potentially rich vein? It is, in point of fact, not the only happily mindless comedy on Broadway at the moment: A block up West 48th Street, the juicily inventive Hitchcock parody, "The 39 Steps," has extended its run at the Cort Theatre. And this weekend, Mamet's "November," a maliciously satisfying spoof about a failing presidency, ends its Broadway stay after an impressive 238 performances.

But the freewheeling high jinks of "Boeing-Boeing" are a cut above. Central to its appeal is Rylance's remarkable turn as Robert Lambert, a wallflower from Wisconsin who descends on the snazzy all-white apartment of Whitford's Bernard and soon entangles himself uproariously in Bernard's complicated romantic shell game. The onetime artistic director of classically oriented Globe Theater in London, Rylance effects the Walter Mitty air of a man who in his fantasies just may be Casanova.

It's the comic performance of the year -- maybe even the decade. (If the oddball acceptance speech Rylance gave last month for his best-actor Tony threw you, his deadpan portrayal puts it in perspective.) When he's prostrate and waiting for Hahn's insatiable American stewardess to lower herself onto him, you may find yourself gasping for air along with Robert.

The electricity here is all in the wildness of the caricatures and the precision of the line readings. Whitford, his youthful charm enshrined from his years of service on "The West Wing," is an actor of surprising physical grace, and he proves a thoroughly entertaining counterweight to Rylance. Pippa Pearthree, subbing for Christine Baranski at my performance in the role of the imperious Parisian maid, Berthe, was winningly whiny.

As for the trio of actresses playing the bamboozled "air hostesses," all are game and gorgeous. Special mention should be made of the sultry Gershon, trilling her r's and modeling her makeup on Sophia Loren's, and McCormack, kicking up enough Sturm und Drang for an entire evening of Wagner. Their performances provide evidence that film and TV have not done nearly enough to exploit their talents.

A few hundred steps from the Longacre, "The 39 Steps" offers up four actors -- Cliff Saunders, Arnie Burton, Charles Edwards and Jennifer Ferrin -- playing all the parts in a cheekily bowdlerized live version of the 1935 Hitchcock spy thriller. Maria Aitken's staging sends up the breathless theatrics of the genre. The laughs may be a bit less convulsive than those at "Boeing-Boeing," but the play is another enjoyable act of madness in a part of town that could stand more of it.

Boeing-Boeing , by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; original music, Claire van Kampen; sound, Simon Baker; dialects, Deborah Hecht. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York.

The 39 Steps , adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Directed by Maria Aitken. Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Mic Pool; movement, Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes; dialects, Stephen Gabis. About two hours. At Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. For both shows, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.

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