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No Rules Theatre Company’s production of Boeing Boeing is the comedy Washington theatergoers have been waiting for since March 3, 2012. That would be the day that No Rules, a small company in residence at Signature Theatre, closed its last production of a ’60s screwball European play. Like Black Comedy, Boeing Boeing is helmed by Matt Cowart, an über-talented young director who graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts along with the cohort of actors who formed No Rules in 2009. After racking up yet more assistant director credits in New York—including the recent Emma Thompson–starring Sweeney Todd—Cowart is back, and so is a reason to go the theater just for laughs.
Big, belly-shaking, eye-watering laughs.
The six actors contribute equally to the hilarity. But that may be because Cowart is so good at selecting physical comedians and then coaching them in specialized skills like flirting in foreign accents and flailing around on the floor. In Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, the protagonist is an aspiring artist trying to extricate himself from a love triangle and survive an awkward meet-the-parents party during a power outage. (The audience can see while the actors make-believe the set is pitch black.) Juggling lovers is also the problem facing Bernard (Nick Kowalczyk), an American in Paris simultaneously engaged to three flight attendants in Boeing Boeing. They are, in order of their appearances at his posh apartment: New Yorker Gloria (Sherry Berg, with the nasally vowels of Marisa Tomei), Italian femme fatale Gabriella (Jenna Berk, rolling her R’s delectably), and the concupiscent German Gretchen (Sarah Olmsted Thomas, spewing every “sch” sound that she possibly can).
As individual characters in different plays, these ladies would get annoying if they lingered any longer than a beverage cart service. In the opening scene, for example, Gloria whines about her nails and smears ketchup on pancakes, much to the horror of Berthe (Helen Hedman), Bernard’s housekeeper. But once Berk and Thomas make their entrances, their exaggerated portrayals of cultural stereotypes start to gel. Gabriella is the most manipulative of the lot, while Gretchen seems the most pragmatic. All three actresses appear to have spent hours before the mirror, thinking of how every portentous pucker and arched eyebrow can coax laughs. Every actor is in perpetual motion, a sign of collaborative rehearsals where Cowart must have said, again and again, “Can we try this?” And then, perhaps, legs ended up wrapped around bodies while tampons and Lufthansa purses scattered in strategic positions that cannot possibly have been detailed in the stage directions.
French playwright Marc Camoletti wrote Boeing Boeing in 1960, and in subsequent decades, his script has been translated into 18 languages. This English adaptation makes Bernard an American expat, and his university chum Robert an oil heir from Wisconsin. In that role Jamie Smithson proves the best physical comedian in the cast, and works up quite a sweat as he lugs around luggage and thrusts his derriere in and out of the apartment doors. What keeps Boeing Boeing at something of a high-brow elevation is the script, with frequent bursts of German, French, and Italian that should have D.C. liberal arts graduates knowingly winking. (Mon dieu! Amore! Gute Nacht!) The play takes its name from the “Super Boeing,” a top-of-the-line, speedier plane that makes it considerably harder for Bernard to keep up with his three fiancées’ flight times. No Rules persuaded the real Boeing Corporation to sponsor this production and passed out slices of a sheet cake to all who attended Saturday’s opening night. “Thank you Boeing,” the red letters in icing said. How sweet. And how true—not only as an appreciation for funding the production, but for inspiring a once-contemporary comedy that now lands as smoothly as a well-oiled 777.