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Mark Taper Forum (Through Oct. 19)

After a $30 million face-lift that includes a few tucks and several well-placed spatial augmentations, the rejuvenated Mark Taper Forum is finally back in business. The old gal, illustrious past in tow, never looked better.

Which is why the choice of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" to kick off the new era is a bit of a head-scratcher. His 1971 melancholy farce isn't without its moments of levity, but that was never the play's strong suit, and whatever that suit was appears to have shrunk a size or two in the wash of time.

Who lives in "The House of Blue Leaves"? Start with middle-aged Artie Shaughnessy (John Pankow), an unhappy Queens zookeeper who dreams of becoming a songwriter ("Where's the devil in Evelyn/What's it doing in Angela's eyes?") and sings his ditties at the local bar and grill. Artie is what you might call an enthusiast, meaning he doesn't have much going for him but his enthusiasm, which is as boundless and urgent as the desperation from which it springs. He's got a song for every occasion but success.

Then there's Artie's ambitious new girlfriend, Bunny Flingus (Jane Kaczmarek), an enthusiast herself who dreams the same dreams Artie does only in slightly tackier shades. Bunny keeps telling Artie how good he is, and pretty soon he believes it enough to call his old friend Billy (Diedrich Bader), a Hollywood director, to help him on the road to fame and fortune.

Finally, there's Bananas (Kate Burton), Artie's nutty wife who is deranged enough that Artie finally decides to have her committed which, not so incidentally, will also set him free. This is fine with Bunny, who treats poor, defenseless Bananas badly enough to make us wonder about Artie's taste in women, not to mention his character. This is only one of the problems with "Blue Leaves," a play in which it's hard to root for anyone but Bananas, and she doesn't make it to the end.

Everything comes to a boil in Act 2, on the day the Pope visits New York and there are "miracles in the air." Artie's apartment becomes a pit stop for three nuns (Angela Goethals, Mary Kay Wulf, Rusty Schwimmer), a deaf actress (Mia Barron) and Artie's teenage son (James Immekus), who is AWOL from the Army and in the mood to make a bomb. The bomb takes out two of the nuns and the actress, as well as putting a huge crater in Artie's dream. As farce it's not that funny and as life it's not that real, but it is ironic in a hard-edged New York kind of way.

Director Nicholas Martin's cast does its best to make us care about these self-deluded characters, but with the exception of Burton's Bananas, it's not that easy. Kaczmarek's tacky, tactless Bunny grates after awhile. Pankow has his moments, but Artie's a tough sell despite his all-American soul.

Cast: John Pankow, Kate Burton, Jane Kaczmarek, Mia Barron, James Immekus, Diedrich Bader, Rusty Schwimmer, Mary Kay Wulf, Angela Goethals, James B. Harnagel, James Joseph O'Neil.
Playwright: John Guare.
Director: Nicholas Martin.
Set designer: David Korins.
Lighting designer: Donald Holder.
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry.
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen.


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