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'Boeing-Boeing': Airborne at Hartford Stage

Boeing-Boeing (written in French by Marc Camoletti and translated by Beverly Cross) first landed on London's West End in 1962, where it played a record-breaking 2,000 performances. It was transported into a film starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, then traveled to Broadway, receiving the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival of a play. Now, it's airborne once again at Hartford Stage, under the direction of Maxwell Williams.

An entertaining if specious and dated comedy, the Hartford production is saved by some terrific tension-filled ups and downs thanks to Williams's cohesive direction and an amusing and energetic cast.

In the early '60s the women who flashed big smiles and served three-course meals and cocktails at no extra charge to their onboard "guests" were called airline hostesses-versus today's less sexy-sounding flight attendants. And befittingly, the three alluring women at the center of the plot are donned in hot little numbers-body-hugging, brightly colored suits showing plenty of nylon-covered leg, paired with snappy matching caps.

So it's no surprise that Bernard (Vince Nappo) has figured out a way to have a three-way liaison in his Parisian apartment with these gorgeous gals: Gloria, the American (Kelly D. Felthous); Gabriella (Kathleen McElfresh) the Italian; and Gretchen (Claire Brownell), the German.

Bernard's French housekeeper Berthe (Denny Dillon) is frazzled trying to keep up with the arrivals and departures, not to mention the clichéd menu, including pancakes and ketchup (ughh) for breakfast for Gloria, and hotdogs and sauerkraut for dinner for Gretchen. Then Robert (Ryan Farley), Bernard's geeky friend from Wisconsin whom he hasn't seen in years, arrives at the door. Robert is in France seeking adventure and a suitable mate.

Bernard informs Robert that he's a fiancée polygamist because "fiancées are much friendlier than wives" and that he has "all the pleasure of the harem, right here in Paris."

Nappo is delightful as the philandering Bernard as he excitedly shows Robert his airline timetable with each of the three women's routes, explaining "the whole secret is being organized…It's pure mathematics. I'm obsessed with the challenge."

Bernard has chosen women whose names all conveniently start with a G "in case of slips of the tongue, gifts, and so on."

He insists there is no chance of his scheme every going awry, which of course it immediately does, as all three women's arrival and departure times suddenly change.

As tensions mount, Robert and Berthe become complicit in keeping the farce from being exposed with engaging slapstick comedy.

Farley plays his role as Robert to the hilt, completely entrenched in covering for Bernard, frenetically switching the women's portraits on the wall, and trying to keep each cloistered in a separate room as they all converge in the apartment.

Dillon is fabulous as the increasingly anxious and cranky housekeeper-outraged by her American employer's behavior, threatening to leave, yet easily bought off by a raise.

McElfresh is the sanest, if least colorful, character in the stewardess trio as the sensuous Italian Gabriella.

The most exaggerated stereotype is Brownell playing Gretchen-all she has to do is open her mouth with her over-the-top German accent to elicit laughter.

Felthous is the most dimensional and funny of the three as Gloria-particularly in the second act when she practices her kissing technique on Robert, for whom she has no romantic interest, but is fascinated by his "little flower-like mouth." She goes in for the kiss like a kill, performing some amazing gymnastic moves. Her character is also the most palatable because it turns out Gloria's not a victim-she's as up to no good as Bernard.

Bernard starts to unravel along with his plan as all goes haywire, but regains his composure as Boeing-Boeing comes in for a bit too smooth a landing, culminating in a halfhearted pillow fight between Robert and Bernard that reinforces the stereotype of men never growing up. The turbulent edge of the production is replaced with a safe, happy ending in which monogamy rules.

Special mention should be given to scenic designer David Barber and lighting designer Traci Klainer Polimeni for the spacious and bright '60s-modern apartment where all the action takes place; costume designer Thomas Charles Legalley for the women's marvelous outfits; and sound designer Fitz Patton for the jazzy soundtrack evoking a Pink Panther movie.

Performances of Boeing-Boeing continue at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, through Sunday, Feb. 12. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

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