PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Boeing-Boeing—The Host with the Mostest Hostesses

Boeing-Boeing was the ding-dong that opened the doors of the landmark Longacre Theatre to $12 million of renovations May 4. Inside, over the next two hours, a lot of doors on stage opened and closed, the show being an aggressively old-fashioned, door-slamming sex-farce in two acts and three holding patterns.

Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance, Gina Gershon, Mary McCormack and Kathryn Hahn.
Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance, Gina Gershon, Mary McCormack and Kathryn Hahn. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

Our hero, Bernard ( Bradley Whitford), is an overactive lothario who minds his Ps and Gs — the American Gloria ( Kathryn Hahn), the Italian Gabriella ( Gina Gershon) and the German Gretchen ( Mary McCormack) — air hostesses all, who come to roost in his swank Paris pad for impossibly well-coordinated stopovers.

Not to worry. Their arrivals and departures are determined by precise airline timetables. And there's no confusing them since all three come primary-color-coded for easy identification —Gloria in TWA red, Gabriella in Alitalia blue and Gretchen in Lufthansa yellow — all delightfully mini-skirted, with matching flight bags and pill-box hats.

Air Traffic Control for these supersonic seductions — as well as chief cook and bottle-washer — is Berthe, the French maid (the top-billed Christine Baranski), understandably in a constant state of guttural grousing for all the disparate international meals she must prepare. One nicety: she keeps changing the rose to the appropriate color — and, yes, there apparently is a blue rose.

The stage is set for a lot of farcical huffing 'n' puffing — then enters the wild card, or, rather, the not-so-wild card: a Wisconsin rube named Robert ( Mark Rylance), who hasn't seen Bernard since college. What a difference 18 years and nine months makes is readily apparent. Robert's jaw drops and eyes widen at the amorous fast track his bachelor buddy has created for himself. And, guess who's left in charge of the henhouse when airlines and heartlines hopelessly tangle and all three stewardess touch down simultaneously and get shuffled off to their respective rooms?

If that sprinting synopsis emits a slight wheeze, blame it on the genre, which has sunk over the years to a guilty pleasure. The original antic by the late Marc Camoletti logged up 23 performances on Broadway before giving up the ghost in 1965. It arrived D.O.A. on the screen the same year with Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis and Thelma Ritter. And, it has languished in disrepute until recent years when director Matthew Warchus dusted it off, looked it over and tapped into a huge vein of fun still coarsening in the farce. This is what he has reinvented for Broadway, bringing along Rylance from the original revival. The man of the hour was nowhere to be seen — not at the theatre and not at the after-party held at Nikki Beach on East 50th, a very apt locale given the international ambience of the evening. In previous reincarnations, the nightspot was known as Versailles, where Edith Piaf held court, and, more recently, Club Ibis, where the belly-dancing proprietress entertained the patrons. The drinks greeting the arriving customers came in red (cranberry and vodka), yellow (orange juice and tequila) and blue (a blue carousel pineapple with rum). Television sets around the club were unreeling "What's New, Pussycat?" (Was Peter O'Toole ever that young?)

Warchus was, in fact, reaching London about the same time the Longacre's expensive curtain was being hoisted for the first time. Explained the show's publicist: "Matthew and his wife had a baby about eight days ago. He only saw it for one day, so he wanted to get back as soon as he could. He left today." [Mrs. Warchus is Lauren Ward, who was Martha Jefferson in the last 1776 and Young Sally in the last (Warchus') Follies.]

Which meant that Kathleen Marshall was the closest thing the show had to a director at the party. She staged the wonderfully raucous curtain call. "Matthew asked me if I would do it, and I said 'Absolutely' because I've know Matthew a long time and he's a very dear friend."

To get audiences in the proper spirit of the period, '60s-vintage songs are sung en francaise, including "Itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie–yellow-polka-dot-bikini."

Rylance, a Wisconsin native who has amassed a great rep on the London stage for his Shakespearean (or otherwise intensely serious) roles, wasn't particularly surprised that he made his Broadway bow with a zany farce. "I'm delighted," he said.

"I've done a lot of plays with Matthew. In fact, I was going to come to Broadway with True West. He wanted me to come with True West a few years ago because I created that with him and a friend of mine named Mike Rudko, but they wanted American actors for New York."

Rylance's dotty and dull-edged comic foil may remind you of Victor Moore's forgotten veep in Of Thee I Sing — or indeed any of Moore's performances. It is, he said, based on a number of people. "My little nephew — my sister's son who's about five years old, Noah, has a very wonderful neutral response to things. I watched a lot of Art Carney. I think Art Carney is a genius. There are several guys from Wisconsin that I think of during the show."

Baranski exuded a cucumber-cool persona at the party, despite the strenuous workout it took to get there. "You know we're doing this without mikes, and it's just a tremendous challenge. We've had a tremendous short period to rehearse it — very short: not even a full two weeks before critics came. I mean, that was hair-raising. We've been going nonstop, and I think everybody's utterly exhausted."

This is her first Broadway appearance in 17 years, and she picked it carefully. "I love the character. It's a real character role, and she's so dry and so much attitude. I think it's a hoot. I saw this production in London, and I thought, 'That's a play I want to do.'" Indeed, she used Frances de la Tour's hairstyle, although most Yanks will take it for Karen Akers'. "I asked for it. I wanted it to be very French, kinda Coco Chanel-like severe — because that's her whole thing. She's so different from everybody else."

Whitford, bounding back to Broadway for the first time since A Few Good Men in 1990, said it was much the way he remembered — "only funnier." And much more fatiguing. "I'm exhausted by the end of the evening, but I sleep like a rock."

Gershon and McCormack both made their Broadway debuts as replacement Sally Bowles in the last Cabaret. Here they are originating characters for the first time.

McCormack plays at her sexpot terribly Teutonic, somewhere to the left of Attila the Hun. "It's a lot of fear, too," she said about her intensity. "I'm scared. I want to do well. Why would I want to let everyone down? Everyone is so good. I feel like I'm playing tennis with really good players, and I don't want to miss the ball."

In her wig, Gershon looks very Lorenesque — and that was her vocal model as well. "I listened to her for the accent — her comedies. Of all the Italian ladies, she was sorta in the right sort of comedies. I needed to listen to an accent a lot so I kept listening, and her voice was in the right area that I like."

Hahn was the production's newbee, Broadway-bowing in disbelief: "Are you kidding me? I couldn't believe it. Just standing backstage before the curtain went up — I have the first line of the play — I was just standing there for a while, trying to soak it in, trying not to cry because I knew it would be bad for a farce, and just being so overwhelmed that I was able to be in this company with these people."

Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Jane Kaczmarek, Jim Dale, Katie Finneran, Harvey Weinstein, Max von Essen, Mischa Barton, Howard Stern with Beth Ostrosky and Larry Storch.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Mrs. Whitford — Jane Kaczmarek, a seven-time Emmy nominee for "Malcolm in the Middle" — fairly beamed with wifely pride. "Bradley's so well known on 'The West Wing' for being a serious actor, but he is a huge comic ham, and he's very physical. There's one time where he was doing a gorilla banging on his chest. Impersonating animals is one of the best things he got out of Juilliard. Thank God, it's come in handy." Kaczmarek plans to continue being a working mom (of three). "I'm working on a new show on TNT called 'Raising the Bar,' a Steven Bochco show, a legal show — I'm a judge — and I'm going to be doing House of Blue Leaves at the newly refurbished Mark Taper Forum — Kate Burton and I, in September. I'm Bunny, and she's Bananas. Kate and I were roommates together at Yale Drama School, and now our daughters are in the fourth grade at the same school in Los Angeles, and, after all these years, we're back together again. Nicky Martin is directing it." Uncommon Women and Others led the big parade of celebrities: Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, who were not in that play at the same time — or in any play — but were at this play. Streep showed as a sign of support for Baranski, her best-friend Tanya in the "Mamma Mia!" movie opening July 18. Her future son-in-law in that flick — the hottie of The History Boys, Dominic Cooper—was also a Baranski camp-follower.

SIRIUS Radio's Howard Stern, a rare first-night sighting, came out for McCormack "because she's a good friend of mine. She was in my 'Private Parts' movie, so we come and support her." A happy consequence: meeting Larry ("F Troop") Storch. "My father worked for you," Stern told him. "When you guys did 'Tennessee Tuxedo' and all the cartoons, he was the engineer on it."

Another opening-night mirage was The News' "cultural tourist," Howard Kissel, heeding a last-minute invite as he was preparing his evening's chopped steak. He and Whitford just happen to be old West Side dog-walking pals, and the actor pops up several times in Kissel's latest Applause tome, "New York Theatre Walks."

Needing a good laugh, Les Liaisons Dangereuses' Sian Phillips and The Country Girl's Frances McDormand raced over from their respective shows, as did Laurie Metcalf, who supplies her share of merriment to November. Ditto Lenny Wolpe from Wicked, John Treacy Egan from The Little Mermaid and Ed Dixon from Sunday in the Park with George. Christopher J. Hanke and Tory Ross dropped by after their Cry-Baby matinee — and after she gave Max von Essen a gander at her redecorated dressing room. ("I'm doing a little bit of an Asian flair.") Von Essen will soon be running a summer-stock gamut from Anthony (in Sweeney Todd in Sacramento) to Tony (in West Side Story in Pittsburgh — "my final Tony, I think"); come fall, he'll participate in a series of Kennedy Center concerts — as Buddy in Side Show and Danny in Girl Crazy.

Performer-songwriter Jeff Blumenkrantz also has his immediate future mapped out: "I'm off to Wyoming to write in a log cabin with my collaborator, Beth Platt. We're going to this writers' retreat called Ucross." (That's a berg in Wyoming.)

The Drowsy Chaperone's Casey Nicholaw said he'll be wearing two hats in Los Angeles in a few months (directing and choreographing Minsky's) and only one for Manhattan Theatre Club (directing the nonmusical version of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard's "To Be Or Not To Be." Too bad he can't find a place for the Polish "Sweet Georgia Brown" that Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft pranced out in the movie remake.

A pre-Tony baton duel didn't materialize at intermission between the season's two top conductors: Patrick Vaccariello of Gypsy and Ted Sperling, looking for some enchanted evening on his night off from South Pacific.

"None of the announced Ks came," said one flack, meaning no Kristin Chenoweth, Kelli O'Hara or Kerry Butler — a vocal rest was had by all.

One unexpected guest at the party was Yasmina Reza, whose Art was directed to a Best Play Tony by Warchus in his Broadway debut. She's in town, huckstering her new Knopf book, "Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy" (on the campaign trail for the French presidency). Her current London hit, The God of Carnage starring Ralph Fiennes, she hopes to have on Broadway next season.

Before Boeing-Boeing, celebrity photographer Tom Gates bopped by the Waldorf to catch Daryl Sherman's farewell set on Cole Porter's piano in the hotel lobby and said, in the rush of well-wishers, a gentleman extended a business card to her and said, "Dear Miss Sherman, I represent the Hampshire House, and we would love for you to play in our hotel."

Also attending: Liz Smith, Liz McCann, Liz Callaway, Leap of Faith helmsman Taylor Hackford, Kristen Wiig of "Saturday Night Live," Jim Dale and his wife Julie, The Seafarer's Drama Desk-nominated Conleth Hill (who'd seen the London Boeing-Boeing and proclaimed that the American version is its equal), Katie Finneran (aglow in a glo-green gown), Rob Lee Savin, Harvey Weinstein (betraying his true producer status, telling folks at intermission "The second act is even funnier"), film writer-director Richard LaGravenese, Mischa Barton, Catch Me If You Can's director ( Jack O'Brien) and choreographer ( Jerry Mitchell), the playwrights of The Scene ( Theresa Rebeck), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ( Jeffrey Lane) and Is He Dead? ( David Ives), Grey Garden's Bob Stillman, Tracy Ullman and eight elderly Pan-Am ex-stewardesses who may or may not have had layovers in Paris.

The cast of <i>Boeing-Boeing</i> at curtain call.
The cast of Boeing-Boeing at curtain call. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)