On one particularly charming episode of “The French Chef” from the early ’70s, Julia Child whips up a complicated soufflé with such apparent ease that you’d think she was microwaving popcorn.
The ambitious home cook might think things would go just as smoothly at home. But the reality – as many would-be Julia Childs are all too aware – is a little messier. Unless every last element is perfect, the entire affair collapses into an unrecognizable puddle of stuff.
“The important thing,” Child says in the episode, “is how to time it so neither one of you collapses.”
So it is with the farce, another facet of refined French culture that can seem achievable when viewed from Row D but often becomes hopelessly complex on the other side of the curtain.
The hardworking chefs over at Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions have had their trouble with farces, which they sometimes undertake before getting their cupboards in perfect order. The latest recipe Kaleidoscope is working through is Marc Camioletti’s 1960 play “Boeing Boeing,” perhaps the French farce most familiar to Americans and certainly one of the more complex and satisfying examples of the form. It opened the company’s season last Friday in the Lecture Hall Theatre at Medaille College.
The action revolves around a well-to-do American (Keith Wharton) living the high life in his swank Paris apartment and carrying on passionate affairs with three flight attendants, none of whom knows about the others. But when his bumbling and similarly randy friend (Thomas LaChiusa) arrives from the United States for a visit, the well-laid plans of our hero begin to unravel in predictable and predictably hilarious ways. Doors slam, identities get misconstrued, the put-upon maid (Rebecca Ward) utters any number of sarcastic rebukes, and everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package.
Wharton, who plays the lead character Bernard, struggles mightily with the demands of the role, from the delivery of lines to physical comedy execution that is often far too cartoonish. Next to LaChiusa, who delivers a fine performance as Bernard’s ham-handed collaborator, Wharton and others in the cast seem to be acting on a different plane.
This mismatch of talent is all it takes to throw off the balance of the show. And because the form is so merciless, despite the yeoman efforts of the rest of its cast and director Lona Geiser LaChiusa, it never puffs back up to anywhere near its full potential.
Even so, the play does feature another admirable comic performance in Ward’s rendering of the eye-rolling, door slamming, hyper-judgemental maid Berthe. Ward seems to recognize the need for her to squeeze every laugh from the audience where others have left those laughs hanging, which she does in a strangely charming Paris-by-way-of-Tulsa accent.
But those laughs don’t quite make up for the play’s other crippling deficiencies, from key discrepancies in acting talent and dropped lines to the timing issues so crucial to plays like this.
With many plays, lining up every last element precisely isn’t always necessary to make the material hit the audience the way it was designed to. But with an unforgiving farce like “Boeing Boeing,” perfection is pretty much the point.