Theatre Mirror Reviews-"The House of Blue Leaves"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

entire contents copyright 2013 by David Adams Murphy

"The House of Blue Leaves"

As performed by Next Generation Theater
at William H. Hall Library Auditorium 1825 Broad Street Cranston RI.
Directed by Gladys Cole

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. 

"The House of Blue Leaves" (till 1 March)
@ William Hall Library,1825 Broad Street, CRANSTON RI

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide