There are seven doors in the wooden, semi-circular set of Boeing-Boeing, the Marc Camoletti farce playing at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.
Each is buttressed on the backstage side by wooden braces, to keep the tall, silo-like scenery from shaking each time a door is slammed by an actor — something that happens frequently. But it's Door No. 1, leading to the master bedroom of swinging Paris bachelor Bernard — a womanizer who is juggling three "air hostess" fiancees (one American, one Italian, one German), all on different flight schedules — that has caused the most anxiety.
That entry is held in place by four metal brackets. As one might suspect, there's a story behind that hardware. During the Aug. 2 performance of this London import, which opened in May and won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, actor Mark Rylance's character, a meek Wisconsinite named Robert, exhibited considerable strength. Reaching for the knob of Door No. 1, he pulled the entire portal out of its frame.
Wilbur Graham, the Longacre's house carpenter, noticed the scenic malfunction. After Rylance gingerly guided the door back in its place, and while the performance continued, Graham rushed to replace a loose pin in one of the door's hinges. He then fetched his drill and reattached the hinge. Cracking the door slightly, he gave actor Bradley Whitford, then playing Bernard, the high sign. All was well. Rylance, however, remained anxiously unaware of the emergency set surgery. The next time he was next required to open Door No. 1, he did so tentatively. It opened. The audience — adoring a stage mishap as all audiences do — roared. "Wilbur's life is all about door maintenance," commented Carolyn Kelson, the show's stage manager. Graham checks each hinge, each knob, each latch every day. A sticky door is about as welcome in a bedroom farce as Tina Fey at a Sarah Palin fan club meeting.
If Boeing-Boeing keeps Graham busy, it's not exactly a cake walk for the cast. "I compare it to a musical in terms of the energy it takes," said Greg Germann, who replaced Whitford in September. "It's a freight train — or I should say a high-speed train going at full tilt. You just got to get on board and hold on."
Missi Pyle joined the cast the same time as Germann, following Mary McCormack into the role of the domineering German stewardess Gretchen. "It's by far the most taxing thing I've ever done," she said. "I met Mary before taking the part. The cast was all bruised and battered. I said 'What's going on?'"
Backstage, the actors have numerous way of taking care of themselves. When Gina Gershon was playing Italian stewardess Gabriella, she would step out of her high heels and into comfortable flats every time she exited the stage. There's an inflated exercise ball backstage for anyone who cares to use it. Pyle practices Pilates when she is not on stage. And water bottles bearing the performers' names are posted everywhere. Since Boeing-Boeing is that rare Broadway show that is not miked, requiring the actors to use their full voices, the bottles are lunged at frequently. "I am a hydrating machine," said Germann. "I drink like a gallon of water or hot tea a night," echoed Pyle.
The actors aren't the only ones taking a beating. The white Barcelona chairs in Bernard's living room have short life spans. They are sat on, pounded on and take the brunt of some strenuous make-out sessions. The production has had to retire three of the chairs so far.
Though the play is set in the 1960s, the current Boeing-Boeing is what you might call a 21st-century farce. Past farce productions engineered the necessary split-second exits and entrances through heightened actor attentiveness and cue lights posted backstage above every doorway. Boeing-Boeing has cue lights, but doesn't use them very often. Their utility has been stunted by a series of three-inch color video monitors. Backstage, one is fixed beside each stage entrance. The screen furnishes a full view of the stage action. Prior to certain lightning-speed entrances, actors can be spotted staring into them as intently as a cat tracking a goldfish.
"Sometimes you don't hear the lines," Pyle said, adding that she relied on the monitors a lot. "I try to open the door just as the other woman is leaving. You can see just a flash of color of the other person as you come in."
Despite the choreographed chaos going on onstage at the Longacre, the pervading atmosphere backstage is one of calm and discipline. It helps that the numerous props — many used by Christine Baranski, who plays the irascible maid, Berthe — are neatly ordered and labeled: Keys, Espresso Cup With Saucer, Whipped Cream, Sauerkraut Dish, Yellow Flower, Blue Towel," etc. How calm is the cast? As the action gets underway, actors calmly approach stage manager Kelson with names to add to the guest list.
At one recent performance, after the show's rousing curtain call, in which the cast saunters and sambas to the strains of '60 cocktail music, the actors exited one by one, sober as judges. "See?" said Baranski, placing her maracas back on the shelf. "You'd think we worked for a law firm!"