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NEW YORK – Ben Stiller and Edie Falco give affecting performances in The House of Blue Leaves, their characterizations freighted with a melancholy history of affection, friction and affliction. Their work is all the more admirable given the distancing nature of David Cromer’s unbalanced production, but John Guare’s play remains a strange and wonderful creation more than 40 years after it premiered.
George S. Kaufman famously remarked, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” But Guare’s breakout comic masterwork about losers and dreamers challenges that theory. First staged in 1966, this absurdist black comedy has grown perhaps even more corrosive in its twisted view of success, celebrity, religion, marriage and the American Dream.
When the play was written, fame was still an unattainable fantasy to the average American, conjured through visions of movie stardom and Ed Sullivan Show appearances, or in extreme cases, criminal notoriety. In this era of instant, talent-optional celebrity, every schmuck with a pushy attitude feels entitled to his or her 15 minutes, mostly aspiring to fame itself, not to any professional excellence as a means to it. That makes the aching hunger with which Guare’s characters chase stardom, or access to it, quaint, poignant and ever more pertinent.
The action takes place in October 1965, the day of the Pope’s visit to New York to make a plea to the U.N. to end the war in Vietnam. As the Vatican motorcade passes through Sunnyside, Queens, en route from the airport, Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh) drags off zookeeper and frustrated songwriter Artie Shaughnessy (Stiller), her upstairs neighbor and lover, to receive a blessing on their union.
The plan is for Artie to have his catatonic wife, Bananas (Falco), committed, so he and Bunny can move to California where Artie’s old neighborhood pal, famed director Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski), can open doors in Hollywood.
The play’s second act careens into farcical chaos. Artie and Bananas’ son Ronnie (Christopher Abbott) has gone AWOL from basic training and built a bomb to assassinate the Pope. Billy’s girlfriend, Corrinna Stroller (Allison Pill), turns up to visit. Deaf since an accident on set, the former actress promptly loses her hearing aid and tries to hide her disability. And three nuns from Ridgewood (Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Bennett, Halley Feiffer) climb in through the Shaughnessys’ window to watch the papal coverage on TV.
In the play’s off-kilter world, God and the Pope are just two more points on the celestial celebrity map. Pill’s funny-sad ethereal performance exposes the cultivated poise and glamour of Hollywood as another empty fantasy, while the solace of Billy’s connection to his roots depends on those roots remaining undisturbed.
Guare’s play maintains a delicate equilibrium between zaniness and gravity. The agita of characters seeking a miraculous transformation in their lives is played against the black comedy of their clumsy desperation. As he showed in his textured productions of Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs, Cromer specializes in excavating the gritty emotional realism beneath the theatrical surface. But he mines pathos at the expense of the play’s life-giving humor, particularly in the ponderous first act.
The casting of Leigh is problematic. Bunny is an abrasive character, but in Leigh’s croaky performance, she’s merely obnoxious. While her blind faith in Artie’s negligible songwriting talent is clearly a force in their relationship, there’s zero warmth in this woman. That makes it hard to care for Artie as he prepares to ditch Bananas for the insensitive harpy downstairs.
Stiller has a personal history with the play. His mother, Anne Meara, played Bunny in the 1971 Off Broadway premiere, and he made his Broadway debut as Ronnie in the memorable 1986 Lincoln Center Theater revival, opposite John Mahoney, Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing.
Tamping down his natural eccentricity, Stiller plays Artie as a man crushed by disappointment yet unable to abandon his dreams. As he performs his dreadful Tin Pan Alley ditties at a local amateur night in the play’s prelude, the comedy of awkwardness is excruciating. It’s a major understatement when he scans the shabby confines of Scott Pask’s beat-up apartment set and says, “This is not a creative atmosphere.” Stiller taps into a very real ache, coming alive with manic energy during an impulsive phone call to Billy. And his lingering tenderness for Bananas is deeply touching.
Drabbed-down in shapeless housedress, two baggy cardigans and a lank wig, Falco is like a ghost, longing to experience an emotion not suppressed by a pill. But despite her inescapable sorrow and disconcerting habit of barking like a dog, she’s the sanest person in the room, a distinction enhanced by the suggestion of passive-aggressive mischief in her dazed comments.
It’s impossible to ignore the nagging evidence that this is not a great match of director and material. The sober intensity of Cromer’s approach makes Guare’s cruel destination seem a logical place to arrive, rather than a stinging slap as you exit the fun house. The production frequently sings, particularly in some brilliant monologues, yet it cries out overall for a lighter touch. That the play’s originality still ultimately wins out is a testament to its acute observation of our perverse relationship with fame.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (Through July 23)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Sadoski, Allison Pill, Mary Beth Hurt, Christopher Abbott, Halley Feiffer, Susan Bennett
Playwright: John Guare
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Fitz Patton, Josh Schmidt
Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Jean Doumanian, Mary Lu Roffe/Susan Gallin/Rodger Hess, Araca Group, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Ruth Hendel, Jon B. Platt, Sonia Friedman Productions/Scott Landis
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