theater (reviews)

review: the house of blue leaves

The House of Blue Leaves

By John Guare
Directed by David Cromer
Featuring Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alison Pill
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street
production web site:  http://www.houseofblueleaves.com/google/index.html

April 25, 2011 (opening) — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 28, 2011

  • “I’m too old to be a young talent.” (Artie)
  • “Artie believes in keeping family skeletons out in the open.  Like pets.” (Bunny)

Artie (Ben Stiller) and Bananas (Edie Falco). Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

This production introduces me to John Guare‘s 1966 piece of farce/political commentary/social commentary/family drama — with a twist. The House of Blue Leaves was heralded for being innovative in its own time, combining forms and commentary.  Any reactions from a 35-year remove inevitably will be tempered through innovations that have now become commonplace and characters that feel now familiar. The piece will stand in part as a bit of farce (sigh) and political commentary, out of the mind of a then-young playwright who included one too many plots twists or jokes (or nuns for that matter).  What this production highlights are the different effects that directorial choices can achieve (thank you David Cromer), and the tonal impact of individual performances within the wash of a swarming sweep of bodies on stage.  When the stage goes stiller and stiller (no pun intended) at the end of the play, the final quiet moments before Artie’s time at the mic are terrifying and terrific.  While some of what happens through the play’s full course may feel expendable, Falco transports with the luminous raw enchanting harrowing clarity of her performance as the searingly honest Bananas.

The play opens with us at the back of Artie (Ben Stiller) at the piano facing upstage, playing his own tunes to a unattentive amateur night crowd. Artie’s artlessness at performing, and his inexperience dealing with an inattentive crowd is painful and telling.  He  insists rather than compells, much like a 10-year-old coddled son whining to the grown ups at a party stop what they’re doing and listen to him. We know from the first moments of this play that Artie does not have great talent but does have outsized dreams and have a melancholy context for the madcap adventures that await us for part of the course of this play.

When action resumes we are with Artie and his family and neighbors and folks who drop by in Artie’s multi-family home in Sunnyside, Queens.  Artie the zookeeper, Bananas (Edie Falco) his mentally unstable wife, Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh) his new girlfriend (we don’t know if he has cheated before), Artie’s son Ronnie (Christopher Abbott) about to be deployed, two visitors from Hollywood including Artie and Banana’s old friend Billy (Thomas Sadoski) and his girlfriend and deaf-as-shtick actress Corrinna (Alison Pill), and three nuns who come in from the cold and their rooftop viewing positions to catch the Popemobile on its way by.  Our driving possibilities, our core actions, involve Artie trying to leave for California where he thinks opportunity awaits with his old pal Billy, Bunny’s attempts to get Bananas interested in getting a Mexican divorce from Artie, and Ronnie’s clear plans for his own kind of renown tied to the Pope’s visit.

The playwright locates the play during the early years of escalation of Viet Nam activity and the Pope’s trumpeted visit to the States.  A time between eras with these global political events, and Artie’s small time aspirations providing the driving emotional arcs.  In this world of class yearning with its special American flavor — think Alice Adams —  human scale pain occurs.  Part Glass Menagerie — Artie’s call to his show biz pal Billy to seek his assistance evokes Amanda’s Glass Menagerie phone solicitation and the general aspirational squalor.  Part You Can’t Take It With You — more characters on stage than you could think possible and a bomb.  Part The Entertainer — the zookeeper Artie’s dreams of becoming a lounge singer star despite his clear limitations so that we ache for his raw unsupported yearning.  Part any play or movie with the trusting aspiring mol — Bunny’s loyalty to Artie that easily shifts but you don’t blame her.  Pieces of established types and traditions in a mashup on stage.

In the second act, Bananas dons a dress given to her by Hollywood director Billy’s first wife, to cheer him up after some bad news.  Bananas notes “It’s a shame it’s 1965.  I’m the best dressed woman of 1954.” That could be a quick dismissal of this well-appointed and intriguingly staged production, but that’s not fair to the enchanting selected performances.  And especially, and enthralling, we must honor Edie Falco’s focused stare that eventually awakens when she is given full attention that eventually draws attention from the chaos often crafted on stage.  Bananas spends significant time downstage right, motionless, focused, drawing us in, much as Michael Kahn directed Judith Light‘s 2001 Hedda Gabler in DC Shakespeare Theatre Company.  This Bananas aches to be allowed to feel and not drugged, who barks like a dog for her food from her zookeeper husband perhaps because that’s the only way she can get his attention.  This same Bananas suddenly shows her beautiful side when she dresses up to cheer up old pal Billy in the second act.  When real emotional need is expressed on stage, it is Bananas who responds and opens up.  Bananas is the soul of this play, begging to be allowed to feel.  For this performance and this character alone, yes.  See this production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 29, 2011)

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