Even if you entered the Timber Lake Playhouse's Boeing-Boeing unaware that author Marc Camoletti's play was a farcical comedy - its elbow-in-the-ribs title somehow not divulging that information - all it would take is one look at Nathan Dahlkemper's scenic design to know that some serious slapstick was bound to be in store.
Set in urban Paris in 1961, director Derek Bertelsen's production takes place in the posh, spacious living room of a confirmed bachelor's apartment, and as envisioned by Dahlkemper, it's one that Sean Connery's James Bond - or perhaps the Jetsons - would envy. The room's curved wall and bright, tacky, art-deco tchotchkes immediately suggest both the period and the not-too-distant future, and among the room's wall hangings are two that look convincingly like Roy Lichtensteins, further preparing you for Boeing-Boeing's air of swinging-'60s insouciance. But what really underscores the show's comedic bent are the doors - all seven of them, each equidistant from one another, with three on either side of the center-stage door to the foyer. Let the swinging and slamming commence!
And swinging and slamming does commence in Timber Lake's latest, but I wish I could say that the results were as hysterical as Dahlkemper's honey of a set leads you to expect. Unfortunately, though, the hilarity in Saturday night's presentation only came, for me, in quick, occasional bursts, and when the laughs did land, they had almost nothing to do with Boeing-Boeing's script. (Despite a frequently admitted distaste for slapstick farces, my response to Saturday's performance may not, for once, have been entirely a minority opinion. While there were numerous chortlers in the crowd and I myself cackled a good dozen times, the patrons sitting directly in front and to the side of me didn't laugh out loud even once.) Heaven knows the actors here are giving the show their all, and Bertelsen's staging is certainly energetic, but it's hard work in a vacuum; you wait for what feels like forever for the play to get rolling, and when it finally does, it doesn't roll so much as wobble and tumble.
What makes this so personally disappointing is that Boeing-Boeing was actually the rare farce that I was really looking forward to, and not just because of how much I've enjoyed Timber Lake's summer-stock company and three previous productions this season. The setup, after all, was rife with mistaken-identity and awkward-encounter possibilities, with the lothario architect Bernard juggling a trio of international air-hostess fiancées who - accidentally and inevitably - all wind up under the same roof. Toss in Bernard's flummoxed, milquetoast pal Robert, a surly housekeeper, a quickly diminishing bottle of booze, and the aforementioned septet of doorways, and you'd seem to have the proper ingredients for riotous fun, with Boeing-Boeing's 2008 Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Play and Best Revival of a Play adding to the promise that this one might be something awfully special. (Beverley Cross adapted the comedy from Camoletti's original, French-language version, first staged in 1962.)
Well, it's awfully something, but what that something turns out to be is "typical." As usual for works in its genre, Boeing-Boeing supplies the requisite, protracted setup lasting nearly half an hour, featuring all manner of labored exposition and, at best, a few mild chuckles. We're given the slow grind of character introduction - with all of the roles boasting one salient comedic characteristic apiece - and contrivances too-obviously prepped for, setting up the verbal and visual gags that will (presumably) pay off later. We're treated to "witty" wordplay and "naughty" double entendres and most of the show's female cast, at some point, traipsing around in their nighties. (It should be said that the women doing the traipsing here - Kelly Krauter, Hanah Nardone, and Erica Stephan - are uniformly lovely.) And, of course, there are the farcical conventions that, if you're feeling generous, you can choose to simply accept, such as characters not getting drunk despite deep and constant swigs of liquor, and individuals somehow never hearing the deafening shrieks of those standing on the other sides of their closed doors. (I could've maybe forgiven this last bit here if the show's men didn't keep insisting that the women keep their voices down; the apartment's puzzling acoustics are the nuttiest things about the show.)
In short, that recent Broadway production must have been miraculous, because not only did Boeing-Boeing's generic, mostly unfunny script make me question its Best Revival trophy, but given the weak material, I could barely tell which of its two male roles was the Tony-winning one. (For the record, it's Robert.) Consequently, it's to Timber Lake's considerable credit that I ended up having as good a time on Saturday as I did. Between Dahlkemper's set, the period-perfect props (plus some comically intimidating frankfurters) assembled by Amanda Sweger, and the juicy, color-coded costumes designed by Tate Ellis and Katy Freeman, Bertelsen's production is a visual stunner; when I occasionally tuned out on Camoletti's/Cross' dialogue, at least there was always something eye-catching to look at. And while Bertelsen can't do much to enliven the material's frequent dead spots, he's first-rate with slapstick apoplexy, timing the cast's aghast reactions and pratfalls and, yes, continual door-slamming with hairbreadth precision.
Overall, Saturday evening's production may have benefited from a tad more precision, as there were enough minor stumbles on lines to make the issue worthy of mention. (Maybe tiredness played its part in this, as the cast also performed a Boeing-Boeing matinée that day.) But it's hard to imagine wanting, or getting, a stronger collection of actors for Timber Lake's comedy, beginning with leads Dryden Meints and guest artist Brandon Jess Ford (welcome back, Mr. Ford!), whose portrayals of Robert and Bernard, respectively, are robustly, joyously committed. Never better than when freaking out - especially when Robert trips over his own feet (and an awkwardly positioned telephone cord) and Bernard lapses into near-catatonic incredulity - Meints and Ford are wonderfully assured verbal and physical comics here, and they're matched by Analisha Santini's haggard housekeeper Bertha, with the performer creating a singular farcical figure who sounds like a grouchy women's-prison guard and looks, rather uncannily, like The Incredibles' Edna Mode. But taller.
Playing the American air hostess Janet, Krauter emerges as perhaps Boeing-Boeing's most sheerly likable presence, lending a pert sensibility to Janet's unapologetic self-interest, and offering a sensationally, hilariously level-headed rationale for why American men, for all the wrong reasons, are the best in the world. Nardone is a zonked cupcake as the French Jacqueline, her enticing daffiness and cuddly, kitty-cat quality offset by a piercing wail that, on one reading of "Wha-a-a-a-at?!?", was enough to waken every dog within a five-mile radius of Timber Lake. (I'm thinking my laugh that followed Nardone's reading was nearly as loud.) And portraying the easily incensed, secretly sensitive German air hostess Judith, Erica Stephan is not only a spectacularly gifted comedienne, but is all but unrecognizable from her Working and Footloose performances earlier this summer, her throaty readings and languid posturing suggesting a funny, Teutonic Greta Garbo. As other commitments are, unfortunately, forcing me to miss the rest of Timber Lake's offerings this summer, I'm sort of bummed that Camoletti's and Cross' middling farce is my 2012 send-off. But I couldn't have been more delighted to spend a couple more hours with Timber Lake talents this captivating. To their production's enormous benefit, when the actors here are working at peak capability, Boeing-Boeing doesn't just fly; it soars.
Boeing-Boeing runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through July 28, and information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.