Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Proving Laughter Is Best Medicine for Air Sickness

MESA, Ariz. — When I last saw Rene Foss, a couple of years ago, she was in her underwear. She and about a dozen other flight attendants were wearing red lingerie, in fact, as they posed for a photograph around a shiny World War II trainer parked on an airport ramp.

The photo was for the cover of a parody cheesecake calendar, “2007 More Stewardesses Stripped (More Pensions Stripped?),” published by flight attendants from various airlines to call attention to the fact that the airlines’ return to profitability was in part because of big pension and salary cuts that airline employees, including flight crews, had taken in recent years.

The calendar project, alas, is defunct, a victim of rising costs. But Ms. Foss — whose fame as a performer preceded her stint as Miss January 2007 — is still on stage between her days off from flight attending (her schedule allows her put together extended periods to do the show). She has worked for a major airline (which won’t let her use its name in her second job) since 1985.

I finally caught her one-woman show, “Around the World in a Bad Mood,” here on Friday night, in which she has been ridiculing the airline industry and everything about it, from the bonus-grabbing bigwigs (the rapacious chief executive of the fictional airline in her revue is named Kenny Stealmore) and the pistol-packing pilots to the passive-aggressive flight-attendant supervisors, the airport security screeners with busy hands and the flight attendants whose code phrase to a demanding passenger, “I’ll be right back,” means buzz off.

Flying once was glamorous, says Ms. Foss. Her mother — a white-gloved flight attendant from 1951 to 1959 — told her so. Not now, Ms. Foss jokes: “It’s like a big Wal-Mart in the sky!”

Some flight attendants she knows say that when they work the aisles collecting refuse and saying sweetly, “Your trash. Well, they aren’t actually asking you, they’re telling you.”

Not that she spares herself. She said she once evoked the title of a 1960s book about stewardesses in another era “when I asked a passenger, ‘Coffee, tea or me?’ He said, ‘Are there any other choices?’ ”

It says something about public attitudes toward air travel these days that Ms. Foss’s one-woman show sold out for every performance during its two-week run, which ended Sunday, at a 200-seat theater in the sprawling Mesa Arts Center near Phoenix.

There are actually two versions of the production. There is also a musical version, with Ms. Foss and a cast of four. That revue is scheduled for performances in New York in April. And Ms. Foss also wrote a book in 2002 that has the same title as her show.

The 90-minute, one-woman show features music, film clips, props (Ms. Foss hilariously uses decorated airline vomit bags to stage a Shakespearean puppet show as played by quarrelsome airline passengers) and a cast of characters, all done by Ms. Foss. (Two of the puppets, business travelers, have a furious argument over which one is to sit in seat 2-B or not 2-B.)

Here is her explanation to the audience about why her fictional airline does not serve food: “Our seats didn’t get smaller; your butts got bigger. Therefore, in the interests of comfort, no eating.”

Ms. Foss, who is 45 and invincibly cheerful in person, insists that she loves being a flight attendant and will never quit.

“I’ve given the airline industry the best years of my life,” she announced. “Now I’m going to stick around to give them the worst.”

Right before the show, Ms. Foss and I were talking to Randy Vogel, the director for theaters and operations at the arts center. He watched as the audience filed in.

“Two hundred seats!” he said. “Why don’t we pretend we’re an airline and sell 215 tickets, and then I get up on stage before the show and announce that we’re overbooked and we need 15 volunteers to leave before we can take off?”

Everybody wants to get in the act.

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