Center REPertory Company in Walnut Creek (yes, they spell it like that) has a proven track record of choosing slightly offbeat, popular shows to stage. I’ve wanted to travel there in the past to see shows like WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and DRACULA. However, primarily for geographic reasons, yesterday was the first time I had actually seen one of their productions. Walnut Creek is a good 40 miles from Marin, and the East Bay transportation network means that humans can not travel there as the crow flies, which would undoubtedly be more direct. Nonetheless, BOEING BOEING became Show #10 for this year. I felt pleased to successfully navigate my way there on public transportation, rather than the expected driving, with associated gas money and bridge toll. I had found out last summer that Center Rep would be staging this comedy, and knew that I had to find a way to see it, where I had highly enjoyed the 2007 London revival of the play.
I will briefly reflect on that original show experience. I saw it on a Monday night (Sunday is the equivalent of a USA Monday in British theatre, when most theatres are dark) and had spontaneously chosen to see the play. I think it was one of the earliest performances; the play was either still previewing or had just recently opened. I noticed that two highly esteemed British actors, Mark Rylance and Frances de la Tour, had leading roles. The show was on at the Comedy Theatre, a venue just off Leicester Square where I had previously seen THE OLD MASTERS with Peter Bowles and Edward Fox in 2004, and possibly one other play before this. I had read some publicity about the show and knew it was a revival, but was coming in primarily cold.
Needless to say, I was happily surprised! The show essayed a buoyant tone of comedy and tongue in cheek humor, not taking itself out of the 1960’s setting and yet winking to the audience at the absurdity of the plot. Rylance in particular captured the deadpan nature of his character with an ideal blend of subtlety and directness, when called for. I know he won either an Oliver or Tony award for the performance. The set was very tight, as the Comedy is a modest stage. The color scheme was appropriately buoyant, served by a curved wall with multiple doors leading to different backstage areas. The curtain call found all the actors coming back onstage dancing to a Brazilian samba, with de la Tour getting the loudest applause for her thoughtful portrayal of the long-suffering housekeeper. The production quickly picked up momentum, and I recall that American actresses Rhea Perlman and Christine Barinski were imported into roles for a while.
Meanwhile in Walnut Creek, I had to wonder if Center Rep’s AD, Michael Butler, had seen the London or subsequent NYC production(s) and knew that he wanted to bring it to the Bay Area. The set was similar, but not identical, to what I remember from London in Center Rep’s smaller than I expected main theatre. There was plenty of playing space in an oval-shaped central area, reflecting the “way out” or “space age” 60’s designs. Offstage was never shown, but well suggested through multiple colored doors. It was clear that the actors had carefully rehearsed entrances and exits, which had to be immediate, or the physically comedic jokes would not work. I noticed that some more farcical elements of the show were more broadly played than I remembered from London. A character might be caught in a compromising position for a second or two longer, or slightly different posture, than England. This could be the focus of a longer analysis between British and North American interpretations…
I realized on seeing the show a second time that the two main male characters are actually BOTH leading roles. We are introduced to the protagonist, Bernard, thinking that he will be the focus of the story. However, Bernard’s role and importance decreases as the play goes on, becoming almost an afterthought. He is eclipsed by his friend Robert, whose arrival really sets the play in motion, and tends to get more to most of the memorable lines. Of course, they are also surrounded by three lovely ladies and a Bernard’s long suffering maid. (What would she be called in 2010 terms? A major-domo?) In the case of the maid, I enjoyed the portrayal, but missed Frances de la Tour’s asides to the audience and more layered portrayal – this version stuck with one character affect and stayed with it. I’d seen two of the actresses playing the stewardesses in vastly different recent roles, and appreciated the visible examples of their versatility. The cast bios revealed that the third stewardess, whom I had not seen before, and the lead actor portraying Bernard had recently acted together in another Bay Area production. I wonder what that must be like, where a modest amount of local AEA actors often encounter each other on multiple shows. Do they treat it only as a quirk of a profession? With a wink of an eye? Laugh about it backstage? Some day I will find that out for myself.
The audience experience at Center Rep was memorable for me. They have instituted a British-style routine of selling small ice creams at the interval. When I commented on this coincidence to the seller, she acknowledged that they had gotten the idea from England. I had an ideal front row seat, purchased as a half price rush ticket. My seat neighbor had an extremely loud laugh, so much so that he often choked. That was somewhat annoying to me in the moment, but I feel now that it added to the communal experience of the play, and made a show I was familiar with feel fresh again.