The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare, Walter Kerr Theatre, 4/4/11-7/23/11. http://www.houseofblueleaves.com/flash.php?version=standard. Contains stage violence, including an explosion.
Reviewed by Becca Kidwell
Like Jay Gatsby, the characters of The House of the Blue Leaves long for love and notoriety. But also like Jay Gatsby, their shallow dreams are based upon delusions. David Cromer’s revival uncovers all the darkness and pain hidden in the recesses of a middle class home into the light of day with laughter and cruelty.
Scott Pask’s institution-like set provides the perfect environment for an evening of madness. But who mad? The housewife who feels that she is nothing more than the humiliating joke of celebrity? The zookeeper who dreams of becoming a successful movie songwriter? Or perhaps it’s the nuns?
The show opens with Artie Shaughnessy (played by Ben Stiller who played Ronnie Shaughnessy in the 1986 Broadway production) desperately trying to play his music at an open mic night at a local dive where he is continually heckled and ignored. Artie’s dreams are fueled by his love for his mistress Bunny Flingus (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who cannot wait until they are married and move to California. Leigh’s ambitious Bunny shows she is willing to do anything to help Artie to become a famous songwriter. They seem to have a loving relationship that is only impeded by one thing–Artie’s wife (played by Edie Falco).
As Bananas Shaughnessy, Edie Falco provides the main link to reality and sanity in the play (although that is a very low bar to overcome with these characters). Falco creates a gentle, passive person who allows herself to be pushed around by her husband and his mistress and is relegated to the position the unwanted, stray dog. Yet, Falco shows that underneath the forcibly sedated persona, Bananas understands what is going on around her and simply wants to remain in her husband’s life–even if she has to pretend to be a dog. Bananas’ main goal is to remain in the place where her memories live. In the second act, she summons enough strength to become more human, which is helped with the arrival of Billy (played by Thomas Sadoski) who actually acknowledges Bananas’ humanity. Edie Falco infuses her performance with this fragility, strength, and intelligence that provides the central balance on the turbulent household.
Ben Stiller’s portrayal of the self-absorbed zookeeper/songwriter Artie Shaughnessy lends a sinister edge to the piece. Between shoving pills down his wife’s throat and parading his mistress openly around his house, one cannot help but marvel at his self-indulgent behavior and question how he can be allowed to carry on in this destructive manner.
Bunny Flingus, the home-wrecker who lives in the apartment below Artie and Bananas is no less narcissistic and is even more opportunistic than Artie. Jennifer Jason Lee creates a presumptuous head of a household that is not her own; Bunny’s only goal is to get to Hollywood and be with a successful man who will indulge her luxurious whims, and she will do whatever it takes–except cook for Artie.
Act II brings three nuns, a starlet, and Artie’s inflammatory son Ronnie. The nuns, who are desperate to view the Pope’s arrival barge into the Shaughnessy’s apartment to catch a glimpse of the Pope even if it is only on tv. Halley Feiffer stands out as the “Little Nun” who seems to have made a hasty deal with God and hopes to find a way out of her servitude. Allison Pill plays the beautiful, almost deaf starlet, Corinna Stroller who was sent by her fiancée, Billy (played by Thomas Sadoski) to send his patronizing recognition to his childhood friend Artie. What most of the people in the play do not realize is that although it is easy to enter this institutional apartment, it is considerably more difficult to leave. The absurd events reach a climax as Artie’s son Ronnie (played by Christopher Abbott) fails to carry out his militant act that would give him his fifteen minutes of fame.
All of the characters want, grasp, and strain to be noticed in one way or another. Guare taunts them and produces a trap that allows them to reach some of their desires, but only by ignoring the needs and wants of the other people in their life. David Cromer creates a painful, ominous scenario with the assistance of an oppressive set by Scott Pask and a strong ensemble cast that exposes the isolating, destructive world of materialism and egoism. The play leaves the audience bewildered and in awe by this dark, preposterous situation. TNETG. 4/25/11.