Bradley Whitford is laughing.
What was it about Boeing-Boeing that so appealed to him? he has been asked. What was it that made him decide to return to Broadway to star in a revival of that 1960s comedy about an architect in Paris simultaneously engaged to three flight attendants?
Whitford, who portrays that erotically athletic architect but is best known for his Emmy-winning role as presidential aide Josh Lyman on the classic TV series "The West Wing," offers a suitably classic and period-appropriate — if perhaps intentionally politically incorrect — 1960s-style response.
"I have a more pretentious answer," he says. "But are you kidding? Chicks in miniskirts." And the pretentious answer?
"I started to read the play, and I started laughing at the relentless silliness of it all. I just thought, 'Wow, this is profoundly unimportant. This is deeply shallow stuff.' And it just looked incredibly funny. It's certainly challenging — much more than you would think. Reading it you think, 'Funny, funny, funny.' And then you realize how precise it has to be. But I stand by my 'chicks in miniskirts' answer."
The revival of the comic farce by the French playwright Marc Camoletti was a huge hit in London, where critics called it "the funniest show on the London stage" and said that the production had completely reinvented the play. In addition to Whitford, the farce, at the Longacre Theatre, stars Mark Rylance and Christine Baranski. The director is Matthew Warchus, whose Broadway credits include Art and the revival of Follies.
Whitford and Baranski have joined the cast for the Broadway run. Coming with it from England is Rylance, who, according to London critics, gives "the comic performance of a lifetime."
In the play, Whitford carefully divides his lust based on airline timetables, juggling those three flight-attendant fiancées with the reluctant assistance of Baranski, his housekeeper. When Rylance, an old friend, arrives, Whitford's precise romantic schedule begins to fall apart — and, in the tradition of farce, doors start opening, closing and slamming.
Rylance is a renowned British actor and the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. It would seem like a long, long way for him from Shakespeare to a 1960s farce, but Rylance says it is not really that far — and he is happy to have traveled the distance, and to be making his Broadway debut.
"This farce almost shares more with some of Shakespeare's comedies than with what we think of as English farce, which can fall back on silly, smutty jokes," he says. "This goes back to some of the confusion we find at the end of a lot of those Shakespeare comedies. So it's not unfamiliar territory for me. And besides, I wanted to do something lighter."
The original Boeing-Boeing was a huge hit in Europe, running for seven years in London and 19 years in Paris. European farces, though, often have a short shelf life on Broadway, and when the play arrived in New York in 1965 at the Cort Theatre, it lasted for only one preview and 23 performances.
This production, though, Rylance says, is very different from that '60s one. "We found in the London rehearsals that the original French script was heavily adapted in the '60s for English audiences. There was a lot of better material in it. That English adaptation hadn't been so confident about the play's situation-comedy-based nature and had added a sense of humor that often obscured what was clearly funny. It hadn't trusted the situation as much as we found we could. So we went back to the original."
Baranski, appearing on Broadway for the first time in 17 years — since Nick & Nora — has won two Tony Awards, for Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Neil Simon's Rumors, as well as an Emmy for "Cybill." She is appearing with Meryl Streep this summer in the movie version of Mamma Mia!
"I've been waiting for both my daughters to grow up to go back to being a theatre actress and get in the New York groove again," Baranski says.
The play, she says, "has a kind of sexy insouciance" — it's "a politically incorrect period piece" from the "last period of innocence. Some of its charm is harking back to a time when life could be lived according to an airline timetable. Who can do that now?"
She is choosing to play the maid as French, with a French accent. "I'm captivated by playing a Frenchwoman. I've been going to the French Culinary Institute, hanging out and hearing accents — immersing myself in all things French."
She says she usually plays "glamour girls in short skirts and high heels. Now I wear black slacks, a white blouse and flats and watch my beautiful colleagues negotiate their way in high heels. It's nice to play a role where I come on and off the stage in flats."
For Whitford, this is his first Broadway appearance since he joined the cast of Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men in 1990. He came back, he says, in part because of the chance to work with Rylance and Warchus and Baranski. Then he laughs again. "And chicks in miniskirts. It really is the answer to all your questions."