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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The House of Blue Leave
Guare says his play is about humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other. It's set in 1965 on the day of the Pope's visit to the UN when he passes en route through Queens where the Shaughnessy family lives. Artie Shaughnessy (John Pankow), whose day job is as zookeeper, lives on dreams of selling his songs. His wife Bananas (Kate Burton) really is bananas and hasn't left the house in years. His son Ronnie (James Immekus), an unhappy army private, is busily working on a bomb to blow up the Pope in retaliation for his own unhappy life which he blames on his parents and the contempt of their friend, producer Billy Einhorn (Diedrich Bader) who overlooked him for the role of Huckleberry Finn.
Artie finally lets his mistress Bunny (Jane Kaczmarek) wheedle him into going to California where he hopes Billy will make all his songs hits and all his dreams come true. Rather than holding out on sex, Bunny holds out on cooking and the elaborate recipes she and Artie keep in a scrapbook are the esoteric delicacies he will enjoy once he commits Bananas and they are in California.
What's a Pope without nuns? The trio who pound on Artie's window so they can watch the Pope on TV seem no more whimsical than the beautiful movie star Corinna (Mia Barron) who's deafened on one of Billy's sets and who drops in and is blown up. She's literally a deus ex machina for bringing Billy into the last act.
Pankow is Everyman in an unostentatious performance. Its naturalism is a fulcrum for the women in his life. Kaczmarek's Bunny is an outsize, over-the-top woman who doles out banality and lust for life in equal portions. Burton plays Bananas with a delicacy that shows us the pretty girl she used to be before life locked her bedroom door. She demonstrates her devotion to Artie by imitating the zoo animals on whom he lavishes loving care. She has moments of perception, though they're not always welcome, such as when she points out his so-called original song sounds just like White Christmas. Rusty Schwimmer is hilarious as the whistle-blowing Head Nun and Angela Goethals naively convincing as The Little Nun who goes from being a Bride of Christ to a young divorcee. Diedrich Bader make Billy an apparently sentimental mourner whose segue into a smooth heavy-handed charmer is the hallmark of a lifetime con man.
Nicholas Martin finds the comic beats and blocking in the piece and the heart in the actors' performances. The one distraction is the lighting that goes down to leave a spot pinpointing an actor on the apron surrounding the stage delivering one of the many asides to the audience. Designed by Donald Holder, these transitions still seem awkward and may be the cause of the technical difficulties that delayed the previews.
David Korins' set design has the drab conventionality of a Queens apartment and the loveless air of a home abandoned by its housewife. The furniture seems cramped on a space made small enough to provide sight lines for a large number of seats. Time-specific and colorful 1960s and especially beautiful 1950s dresses are designed by Gabriel Berry.
Beyond Guare's definition, this play is also about jealousy, betrayal, longing and what happens when the American Dream doesn't come true —– again! Guare is a keen observer of man's inhumanity to man and woman. His fellow artists don't escape. "Anyone can create! Be an audience,"Billy tells Artie patronizingly, after lamenting his jealousy of Artie's family life which consists of a mad wife and a murderous son. Billy's jealousy is so real he takes Bunny away, dashes Artie's dreams of songwriting and sees to it that Bananas won't go to the "rest home" with its birds that make a tree look as though it had blue leaves.
The play's bizarre humor cloaks its dark side until the end when that cloak is whisked off and Artie is motivated to an act that seals everything this play has to say into one shocking moment and sears it into the consciousness of his uncreative audience. If you've never seen The House of Blue Leaves, go. If you've seen it before, go again.