Reviewed by David Adams Murphy
John Guare's dark and moving comedy HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES , now rightly considered a modern classic, was partially inspired by Guare's boyhood in Queens NY and Pope Paul VI's trip to Manhattan in 1965, but also by the playwright's pilgrimage to Olivier's National Theater in London, where he witnessed Olivier play a Feydeau bedroom farce and Strindberg's harrowing domestic tragedy THE DANCE OF DEATH with equal brilliance on back-to-back evenings. Why not , thought Guare, combine farce and tragedy, zaniness and horror, in a single play?
And so he wrote HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES: the story of a depressed Everyman named Artie O'Shaunessey, who works as a zookeeper(and enjoys the work!), but longs to be a songwriter-- rich, famous and revered like his childhood buddy, the cinema wunderkind-turned-?lm mogul BIlly Einhorn. It also helps(and hurts) that his mis?t teenage son Ronnie has been drafted, almost certainly to perish in Vietnam(unless the Pope's speech at the UN can stop the war, as Artie and his devout Catholic neighbors all agree it will!); that he's fallen out of love with his morbidly depressed and probably schizophrenic wife Bananas; and that Bunny Flingus, a charming and ambitious young lady living in the downstairs apartment , is willing to serve as his lover and muse--with the promise that Artie will institutionalize Bananas, get a Mexican Quickie Divorce, marry Bunny, and persuade Billy to use Artie's songs in his pictures.
Are Artie's songs any good? WIll he grovel to Billy for help? Can he bear the guilt of abandoning a woman he once loved--and likely still does--to con?nement, medication and electroshock therapy? Why does BIlly's dazzling mink-clad mistress ,actress Corrinna Stroller, show up in Queens out of the blue? Why does Ronnie , presumably AWOL from Fort Dix, wear Altar Boy's vestments over his combat fatigues? Where did these three pushy nuns come from? (Ridge?eld CT, they say, to wave to the Pope, but how'd Head Nun get up on Artie's roof in a wheelchair?)
I won't spoil the plot for those unfamiliar with the play, but this play has not dated since its premiere in the late 1960s; it still has the power to make you cry, gasp and laugh, sometimes in the same breath. Wisely,director Gladys Cole has elected not to update the play with contemporary post-millenium references; the embittered Artie still still calls the visiting Pontiff a "dago " by rather than a "Spic" as he might today!
Using the minimalist amenities of a library auditorium, Cole and her design team have managed to mount a plausible Queens tenement and seedy nightclub onto the Willam H. Hall's stage--props, set and especially costumes gleam with professionalism, with appropriate sheen and wear, from Bannas' frumpy housecoat and the elegant hand-me-downs she inherited from the late Mrs. Einhorn, to Billy's Hollywood Player Mourningwear and Artie's Zookeeper mufti.
The actors, embracing the two most rigorous genres of stage drama combined into a strange third, must walk a precarious tightrope; all the characters seem like good people, but often with the best intentions do horrible things to each other and themselves. All manage not to fall off, and some manage dazzling tricks while balancing. (And yes, their Queens accents sound accurate to this Manhattan expatriate's ears!)
David Alves as Artie wins our empathy for his plight without sentimentalizing his cruelty and failings. Caitlin Robert as Bunny the Live Wire conducts the pace of the long and wordy Act One like Bernstein playing Mahler; her running gags and patter hit their marks unerringly. Joe di Mauro as Ronnie moves like a hunger-crazed panther and raps like a jazz master; he manages the dif?cult feat of being charming and terrifying, as does Meryn Flynn(who also brie?y treats us to her opera-worthy pipes--when will we see her in a musical?) as Head Nun. Her comrades, Lauren Ferreira and Amanda Beaton contribute laughs and adorableness as Little Nun and Second Nun; As the Golden Hollywood Couple of Corrina and Billy, Stephanie Traversa and Alex Duckworth cut elegant ?gures of credible talent and glamour; one sees how they escaped from Artie's world, and why Artie and Bunny are so desperate to become them.
Best of all, and downright amazing, is Amy W. Thompson's Bananas, one of the ?nest performances I have seen on a Rhode Island stage in this past decade; Thompson shows us with clinical, unsparing accuracy the ravages of mental illness upon the sufferer and those who must take care of her, and the dormant charm of the woman underneath Artie fell in love with, and whom the jaded artist Billy clearly still adores. And she's hilarious, but makes you feel guilty for laughing...another reason to empathize with Artie, and fear what Ronnie might be up to...
This production is a must-see for fans of good theater. You have four chances: Friday/Saturday 2/21,2/22, 2/28 , 3/1 at 8 PM.