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A CurtainUp Review
The House of Blue Leaves
By Elyse Sommer
Unlike the fictional Billy Einhorn he created, playwright Guare must rely on the audience to let him know whether they love and understand his work, especially since it's now almost as old as its main character, the 45-year-old Artie Schaughnessy. Judging from some of the comments overheard as I exited the Walter Kerr after Saturday's matinee, it's a house divided between "still wonderful" "too weird" As for my own reaction: The once smart and very original sendup of the Americans obsession with fame that rivals the religious fervor aroused by the Pope's visit to New York to plead for an end to the far less fervently supported Vietnam War, has lost some of its shockingly flavorful whackiness, mostly because it's been revived by a director who's walks to a different drummer than the author.
Like Born Yesterday, another period comedy with a serious subtext that opened just a day before this revival, The House of Blue Leaves was also dubbed as a comedy. However, its darker undercurrents were always so strong that the often wild and wooly funny business seemed necessary to make these deluded, disappointed people less painful to watch. Director Doug Hughes did nothing to downplay the theme of the need for an informed citizenry to stop corruption through a quintessential dumb blonde, Born Yesterday remains seriously funny. However, The House of Blue Leaves, as helmed by David Cromer, whose dark take on Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs resulted in a quick closing, has brought the play's usual label of " black comedy" into the realm of super realistic Greek tragedy.
Unfortunately, this ramped-up grimness seems to be counter balanced by a less than peppy overall rhythm. Consequently, even the three excellent lead actors and two star turns by minor players, can't make the multiple award-winning play resonate as powerfully as it once did. Oh, there are still laughs, especially during the farcical chaos prompted by the arrival of three nuns, a deaf movie actress, the Shaugnessys' AWOL son with a crazy bomb plot against the visiting Pope. But watching the humiliations and cruelties these people inflict on each other, the laughs, at least in this production, seem forced and, as I already indicated, a device to provide a needed respite from the depressingly claustrophobic approach to Mr. Guare's sartirical story telling via ordinary people whose failed ambitions and false values symbolize a whole world of skewered values and futile wars.
In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, it spins out on the day the Pope's visit to the U N takes him past the Shaughnessy family's Queens apartment house. Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller) lives on dreams of a song writing career in order to deal with the fact that at the end of his days as a Central Park zoo keeper, he comes home to another type of zoo in which the caged animal he must care for is his wife Bananas (Edie Falco) who really has gone bananas. Even though he repeatedly admits that he's " too old to be a young talent," Artie keeps taking part in neighborhood amateur contests. And while he's hesitant to abandon the wife he once loved and had fun with, his downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus, (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who sleeps with him but won't cook for him, has no such compunction. It's her nudging that's made him find a facility (the blue leafed house of the title) where she will be cared for when he heads for California with Bunny.
Ben Stiller's connection to this play dates back to when he was six and watched his mother, Ann Meara, rehearse for the role of Bunny; also his Broadway debut as the Shaughnessy son Ronnie at age 21 in 1985l Now old enough to play Artie he inhabits the role with impressive nuance. From the moment we hear him bang away on the piano in a cheap Queens Boulevard bar during the amateur night that's the play's prologue, he brings enough anger, frustration and nerdiness to this deluded Everyman to make him as monstrous as he is pitiful.
Jennifer Jason Leigh's Bunny is a quintessential dumb-like-a-fox type, but unlike Born Yesterday's loveable Billie Dawn, she's a tough, mean-spirited opportunist who confirms Guare's description of his play as being about humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other. It's hard to be amused by someone who contemptuously tells a mentally ill woman "Suffering — you don't even know the meaning of suffering. You're a nobody and you suffer like a nobody."
As for Edie Falco, her character may be a lost, over-medicated loser, but her portrayal of Bananas is a winner. Falco is truly moving as the woman who's not too bananas to spout some of Guare's quirkier ironies as when she tells Artie that they are as integral to the dreams of the famous people they envy and admire ("When famous people go to sleep at night, it's us they dream of, Artie. The famous ones — they're the real people. We're the creatures of their dreams").
Credit Christopher Abbott and Alison Pill a for the scenes that are most likely to send the laugh meter soaring and actually get Guare's quirky humor. Abbott plays the AWOL Private Ronnie Shaughnessy who has been nurturing his resentment at being overlooked for the part of Huckleberry Finn being produced by his parents' friend Billy Einhorn. Worse yet, Einhorn humiliatingly views his efforts to show off his talents as the actions of a retarded boy. Abbott's one big scene is a lengthy monologue recounting these events as well as his plan to blow up the Pope. His delivery is a model of perfect timing and the response at the performance I attended was the equivalent of a big show stopper in a musical.
Alison Pill's Corirnna Stroller adds a brand new and quite different persona to her growing repertory of notable performances, which besides on and Off-Broadway plays includes her role as a heart-wrenching young cancer patient in the In Treatment TV series. As Billy Einhorn's deaf movie star girl friend she's an immediate object of adoration for Bunny and the Nuns who find their way into the Shaughnessy's apartment, (This is a good place to give a special hand to costume designer Jane Greenwood Ms. Pill's terrific sixtyish Hollywood outfit, as well as the equally period perfect dresses for the other two women). Thomas Sadoski has too little stage time as the Hollywood big wig to make as outstanding an impression as he did in Other Desert Cities.
The directorial talent that has made Mr. Cromer something of a hot New York director is most in evidence in Mr. Stiller's film-noirish prologue scene and the finale which has a touch of his big surprise scene in the long running Our Town. Both these scenes are greatly enhanced by Brian MacDevitt's subtle lighting.
With a strong assist from set designer Scott Pask, the apartment with its second tier to evoke the Queens streetscape is aptly dreary and while the odd angle of the set reflects the oddness of its occupants, makes for some blind spots for people sitting in the left aisle facing the stage. (Couldn't Cromer and Pask have made time to sit in every section of the theater before freezing this set?).
Except for the brief appearances of Abbott and Pill, as well as those nuns, the farcical elements lack the needed electricity to be as weird and wonderfully off the wall as they should be. Thanks to Stiller's searing performance, the play's final moments are still a heart stabbing shocker. Too bad the same can't be said for the entire 2 hours.
©Copyright 2011, Elyse Sommer.
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