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."
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