The House of Blue Leaves
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 17, 2009
Fantasy and reality collide in John Guare's play, The House of Blue Leaves. The result is an explosion of absurdity that pits startlingly funny lines against the tragic circumstances of mundane, unfulfilled lives. The Gallery Players puts together a lively, visually appealing production that moves with pace and professionalism.
Taking place in 1965, the plot goes something like this: The Pope is coming to New York to deliver a message of peace to the U.N. This brings a host of unlikely characters together in an apartment in Sunnyside, Queens: Artie, a zookeeper by day and ambitious hack songwriter by night, who dreams of making it big in Hollywood; Bunny, his airhead of a neighbor with whom he is canoodling, and who scores two enviable tickets to view the Pope during his stadium speech; Bananas, Artie's wife, who watches their affair helplessly as only a manic depressive can; Billy, an L.A. movie mogul and Artie's childhood friend, and his deaf paramour, Corrinna; Ronnie, Artie and Bananas's son, whose plan to blow up the Pope disrupts more than his service in the military; the military police; three nuns; and a role called White Man.
Guare's characters lead small lives, but their unrealistic dreams are colorful and lively; Artie and Bunny, in particular, long to add Technicolor to their drab routine. And, in this production, Stacey Scotte infuses Bunny with enough enthusiasm to convince Artie that he can both write and sing well enough to take him to the top. Bold and conniving, she is the woman behind the man she intends to marry. Bananas is the least of her obstacles as she easily convinces Artie to institutionalize his wife in the home that gives the play its title. Scotte's Bunny is, at once, perky and ruthless, and Guare gives her the zingiest lines. Still, while the lines are funny, very few laughed out loud; it could be the gravity of the characters' situations that infuse the play with bleakness. Burke Adams's Artie is the loser in all of us, but one we don't want to identify with. Artie's songs are artless, sung off-key and delivered without heart. We know he's going nowhere. His flagrant affair swings all sympathy to his wife, Bananas, who watches silently in her disheveled bathrobe. Victoria Bundonis grounds the production in reality. Her performance gives Bananas a weightiness that comes from a feeling of defeat. She artfully gives us a glimmer of her character's former loveliness when she reverts to the role of a pet dog, begging for food and affection like one of Artie's caged animals, or when she tells the hallucinatory story of driving through Times Square years ago and spotting Cardinal Spellman, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bob Hope, each on a different corner hailing cabs. Fondly she remembers offering them all a ride, but instead a brawl ensues, and the whole event is recapped as a joke on the Johnny Carson show in front of millions of viewers. She has chalked up another humiliation.
Although Alex Herrald's Ronnie delivers physically slapstick shenanigans, the humor is as faded as the Vietnam decade. What remains are damaged sons, visible grenades, and a reminder that wars and their props are defined differently today. Still funny is the role of Corrinna, played by Elizabeth Wood. Stunning as the deaf starlet, Wood delivers her non sequiturs with confidence and zeal. The cast is rounded out by Tom Cleary as Billy; Sharon Hunter, Nora Vetter, and Emilie Soffe as the nuns; David Ojala as the military police; and Ronn Burton as White Man.
Directed by Dev Bondarin, the cast maintains a sprightly pace and lands on most of the right buttons. What is missing, especially if much of the humor is lost to another age, is the heart and disappointment of the characters' futile struggles.
The designers give The House of Blue Leaves polish. Ann Bartek has created a beautifully worn Sunnyside apartment for Artie and Bananas, with a clever niche of a kitchen. Brad L. Scoggins has designed splendid costumes, especially those sugary confections for Bunny. Ryan Bauer's lighting creates nuanced effects on the window. And, Chris Rummel's sound, particularly the rumbling of the train, lends a credible reminder of why Hollywood beckons.