When the T. Schreiber Studios decided to cap its 2004-2005 season with a revival of John Guare’s rueful, bizarre comedy, “The House of Blue Leaves,” Pope John Paul II, though debilitated, was still, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, “whinnying with us,” and Germany’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was still the former Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s right-hand man.
Guare’s affectionately loony romp, first produced off-Broadway on Feb. 11, 1971, is set in “a cold apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City,” on Oct. 4, 1965, in the middle of a papal visit to the city, and, specifically, on the day a Papal Mass was to be celebrated at Yankee Stadium. The pope’s visit and its attendant Mass were an effort to bring the Vietnam War to a close.
That ceremony was, unsurprisingly, the hottest ticket in town, a point that motivates and enlightens at least one plot line of Guare’s play, which won both an Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best American Play of the 1970-71 season.
When it was revived by the Lincoln Center Theater in 1986, “The House of Blue Leaves” transferred to Broadway and won four Tony Awards.
Terry Schreiber’s program note on his organization’s new production claims that, with this play, Guare certainly opened the door of zany realism for the likes of Christopher Durang, Nicky Silver and Paul Rudnick.
Be that as it may, an argument could be made that playwright Guare’s actual antecedents include George F. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and others who crafted the knockabout farces that enlivened the theater of some decades back, with works such as “You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Three Men on a Horse,” and maybe even “Merton of the Movies” and a few other beloved chestnuts from the theater’s treasure chest.
Guare’s hero, 45-year-old Artie Shaughnessy, is a would-be songwriter and performer, waiting for the day when the world recognizes his genius. Until then, he labors as an attendant at the Central Park Zoo.
“Blue Leaves” opens with a brief prologue in which the frustrated Artie is performing his songs in the El Dorado Bar & Grill, apparently a down-at-the-heels Sunnyside joint. He does his best to put his songs over, but the cards are stacked against him. It appears to be Amateur Night at the El Dorado.
The lighting man seems incapable of turning the club’s lights down, and refuses to provide Artie with the blue spotlight he says he’s been promised.
Artie’s songs, the most memorable probably being “Where is the Devil in Evelyn?”, are the work, words and music, of playwright Guare.
The playscript describes Artie’s domicile as “shabby,” and the living room designed by John McDermott for the stage of the Schreiber Studios’ Gloria Maddox Theatre, where the play will run through May 22, certainly fits the bill, with its sagging sofa and its battered chairs.
On the wall facing the audience are pictures of an elephant, a koala and a cheetah, to indicate Artie’s occupation, and a religious portrait, to suggest the family’s Roman Catholic faith.
The Schreiber’s small stage can boost or nearly destroy a play. A few seasons ago, it made a hash of an otherwise earnest production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” but it accommodates “The House of Blue Leaves” to perfection.
Artie’s home life is an essay in frustration. His wife, Bananas, is mentally ill, wears a nightgown most of the time, and seldom leaves the apartment. Their son, Ronnie, is AWOL from the Vietnam War, and, harboring dreams of demolition, has become something of an expert when it comes to building bombs of the variety requiring sticks of dynamite and an alarm clock.
There is also Bunny Flingus, Artie’s long-term girlfriend, who, if Bananas were only out of the way, would love to marry Artie, move to California and live a dream life in Bel Air. Artie, for his part, envisions a Bananas-free future in which he could forge a career as a Hollywood movie composer.
The first act of “Blue Leaves” plays a little like a poignant, even mournful, dark comedy in which the laughter comes equipped with at least a modicum of guilt, considering the plight in which the characters find themselves, not to mention the futility of their lives.
The rest of the play is something else again, shifting gears almost as radically as might be the case if Guare had suddenly fallen under the spell of the Marx Brothers.
The stage is invaded by a trio of nameless nuns bent on attending the Mass at Yankee Stadium, regardless of the difficulty involved in getting there. Add to that Corinna Stroller, a stone-deaf movie starlet who is an acquaintance of Artie’s writing partner, Billy Einhorn, plus a military policeman bent on finding Ronnie.
It is quite possible that it is the mix of hilarity and odd sentiment that has helped maintain the popularity that “The House of Blue Leaves” has enjoyed over the course of the 34 years that have elapsed since the play originally opened at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, now the New York Theatre Workshop.
Director Ted Sod, making his Schreiber debut, has handled Guare’s script with integrity and tact, working well with the first-rate cast he’s assembled for the occasion.
Jason Tomarken’s Artie, on whose broad shoulders so much of the play rests, is sympathetic and vaguely childlike, while Jane O’Leary mines Bunny’s inherent vulgarity and her ambition without ever sacrificing the character’s humor and tenderness.
As Bananas, whose name is never given an explanation and very probably doesn’t need one, Tatjana Vujosevic creates a portrait that is poignant without ever becoming demeaning or abjectly pathetic.
As Corinna, Cate Beehan is appealing and energetic, while the nuns, identified as, respectively, Head Nun, Second Nun and Little Nun, are deftly handled by Sarah-Ann Rodgers, Erica Wendal and Kitty Lindsay.
Collin McGee is a suitably dysfunctional Ronnie, and Howard Parke is briefly, but believably, present as Billy.
John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” still plays with the slightly peculiar earnestness it showed at the beginning, and Sod and his actors, all of them clearly working in the same key, have found a way to make it seem as fresh, and as funny, as it did in 1971.
That’s an achievement, to be sure.