The House of Blue Leaves
Mark Taper Forum
Just as every character does in John Guare’s shamefully dark 1971 stage farce The House of Blue Leaves, just as everyone who’s ever taken a breath does for that matter, nebbishy Brooklyn zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy has big dreams. Perhaps this is why Blue Leaves, through all its Keystone Cop slapstick and all its Preston Sturges wackiness and all its gleefully non-PC indictments of the Catholic church, hits home with so many of us despite the improbable convolutions of the storyline and the inherent broadness of Guare’s outrageous but lovable—and scarily recognizable — characters.
Now respectfully revived and artfully chosen by Michael Ritchie and the Center Theatre Group as the piece to inaugurate the freshly remodeled Mark Taper Forum, Blue Leaves has held up well in time—or maybe it’s that the world is just as royally fucked up as it was 37 years ago when his contemporary classic play first debuted. Maybe even more so. Guare’s writing is still as goofily poetic as it was back then and the ever-tightening constrictions of his characters’ everyday lives—living in a coldwater flat in Sunnyside in 1965 they hope to vacate for greener climes after a blessing from Pope Paul as the pontiff gets ready to step off a plane in his first visit to New York — are still as heartbreaking.
Ironically in 2008, however, rather than being a country soon to say a not-so fond goodbye to the machinations of Richard Nixon, for all of us left back then still vaguely hoping we might collectively work toward a more equitable future, look what the legacy of time and the impending Fall of the New Rome has wrought instead: a double-speaking warmonger and a scary hockey mom who could soon be leading our poor punched-around country filled with all of us disillusioned Artie Shaughnessys, a society whose obsession with our never-to-be realized dreams makes us fall asleep at the wheel as far as the rest of America’s and the world’s state is concerned.
Ritchie’s timing is perfect with bringing back Blue Leaves and his production is impressively mounted, particularly in most of the casting choices, as well as in David Korins’ grand yet still claustrophobic, colorful yet nicely shabby New York apartment set, Donald Holder’s forlornly moody lighting, and Gabriel Berry’s whimsical costuming.
All Ritchie-blessed nepotism aside, Kate Burton is absolutely transcendent as Bananas, Artie’s severely schizophrenic wife who gobbles “I’m a peaceful forest” pills like candy (“For once could you let an emotion come out?” she lambastes Artie as he feeds them in handfuls to her from behind) and says she doesn’t mind not feeling anything as long as she “can remember feeling.”
James Immekus also contributes a knockout performance as the Shaughnessys’ son Ronnie, who’s gone AWOL from the Army to return home, don his old alter boy robe, and take his gift-wrapped homemade bomb off to Yankee Stadium to blow up the Pope. In Ronnie’s one long diatribe to the audience, Immekus succeeds in making delightfully fresh a monologue probably performed more times by young auditioning actors in the past three decades than Hamlet repeatedly alas-ing to poor Yorick.
Mia Barton and Angela Goethals also have nice comedic moments as, respectively, an escaping novice nun who’s thrilled to become the divorcee of Christ and Corrinna Stroller, the secretly deaf starlet girlfriend of Artie’s successful childhood film director friend Billy Einhorn, a role here also memorably assayed by Diedrich Bader, who seems able to conjure more tears than a Barbara Walters interviewee in his 11th hour turn in the play’s last scene.
Now, John Pankow is an amazing actor and this guy could have been a wonderfully affecting Artie in many respects; indeed, he is particularly touching here delivering his character’s one speech to Bananas explaining what a swell loonybin he’s chosen to dump her in when he runs off with their downstairs neighbor and new girlfriend Bunny Flingus. Somehow under director Nicholas Martin’s leadership, however, Pankow narrowly misses Artie’s constant underlying, gnawing desperation lurking below the Bunny-induced euphoria, a hint of the anguish and horrors that will eventually stop Blue Leaves audience members cold by the final curtain, possibly even in mid-laugh.
And as Bunny, the Achilles’ heel in this production is that durable and usually exquisite actor Jane Kaczmarek who, even while relating “Sandra Dee’s Night of Hell” from the Modern Screen Magazine that “reached right up and seduced” Bunny’s eyes at the health club, simply never seems to quite “get” her character—her enthusiasm, her wild abandon toward any convention in her way, her willingness to claw her way out of any nearby trashcan to get ahead and leave her life in Sunnyside behind. There’s a too professional, too stunted, too grounded demeanor in Kaczmarek for this role, a feeling that her Bunny would never do the things she’s willing to do to get Artie to dump Bananas at the hospital and sweep her off to Hollywood. Although I heard several times at the opening night party that Kaczmarek had gone too big in her acting choices, the problem here is exactly the opposite: she never one dares to go far enough.
But this House of Blue Leaves is a noble effort, proving Guare’s first notable and successful theatrical folly can still make you double over with laughter, shed a few surprised tears of acknowledgment about the devolution of modern life and, above all, stay with you constantly over the next few days after you’ve experienced seeing it performed. Like the boldly redesigned new Taper space, this fine production deserves all the celebration it can get.
The House of Blue Leaves plays through Oct. 19 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772. Or visit www.centertheatregroup.org