The House of Blue Leaves
nytheatre.com review by Isaac Byrne
July 15, 2007
John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves tells the story of Artie Shaugnessy, a middle-aged zookeeper living in Sunnyside, Queens in 1965 who wants to be a songwriter/star. At the behest of his daffy, shallow mistress, who thinks his songs could be her ticket to stardom, he tries to get a blessing from the Pope and reconnect with a now famous childhood friend, Billy Einhorn. Artie's quest for stardom is hindered by his marriage, his wife's sweet-tempered insanity, his son's conspiracy to blow up the Pope, three celebrity-obsessed nuns, and a number of unfortunate but hilarious events. In the end Artie gets the blessing and sees his friend Billy again, but fails to become a star as his family's insanity and the true origin of his talent relegate him to mediocrity.
The House of Blue Leaves was a smashing success off-Broadway in 1971 and an even bigger hit when it resurfaced on Broadway 15 years later. A host of zany characters, hilarious situations, and some very poignant moments have made this play a favorite among regional theatres and colleges. This dark, comic explosion of farce and tragedy, is also an intelligent commentary on 1960's America's growing hunger for celebrity and the relationship of the would-be dreamers, the actual celebrities, and the need for love and acceptance that both share, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. The play is an interesting choice for a revival 36 years later as Paris Hilton, YouTube videos, and Al Qaeda compete for headlines.
Unfortunately, Ryan Metzler's production focuses less on the human and emotional aspects of the story than on symbolism and themes. On paper, there are a lot of laughs and quite a few heartbreaking moments in The House of Blue Leaves, but this production feels bogged down by a focus on ideas and concepts. The direction by Emily Plumb, sometimes seemed a little unfinished; the big chaotic scenes with large numbers of people onstage felt rough, unfocused, and slightly out of control.
In general, the actors concentrate on broad physical comedy and the director's stylized choices—skimming many of the nuances and subtleties in the play. This extremely broad style of acting often comes across as emotionally cold, and I rarely felt like there was anything really at stake for the characters. This was especially true of the men in this production. The broad, exaggerated characterizations are distracting and keep the events of the play on a superficial level.
The one contrasting performance, William Demanlow as Artie, is still disappointing. He has the heaviest load to carry in the show but seemed unwilling to really put himself into it. There is a trace of occasional pathos and manic desperation, but his performance tends toward a low-key caricature of a failed, middle-aged New Yorker, complete with distracting accent. The main female characters fare a little bit better. Jessica Love-Adcock as Artie's insane but sympathetic wife, Elizabeth Yocam as his bulldozing mistress, and Ayelet Blumberg as the Little Nun all come close to a few touching moments and display decent comic timing, but often I felt a lack of connection between the actors and their more intimate moments. Plumb's frequently awkward staging does little to help and the set design by Brett Van Aalsburg, while minimal, often feels clumsy and slows the action.
This production left me feeling a lot like the main character, Artie Shaugnessy, at the end of the play: empty, tired, surrounded by inscrutable people and a strange sort of chaos, and sadly yearning for more.