“The House of Blue Leaves” By John Guare • Walter Kerr Theatre, 218 W. 48th St., NYC • Open-Ended Run
Alone among the plays of the Irish-American dramatist, John Guare, “The House of Blue Leaves” has taken on a life of its own. Now it’s back again, in a disappointing production.
Perhaps coincidentally, the play’s reappearance has to do with Ben Stiller, whose mother, Anne Meara, played the mouthy Bunny Flingus in the play’s very first production, off-Broadway, in 1971. Stiller was only about five years old at the time.
When the play had its most successful staging, starting at Lincoln Center and moving to Broadway for a Tony Award-winning run in 1986, Stiller was in the cast, giving a debut performance as Ronnie, the hero’s son, a draftee AWOL from the army.
That production’s director was Jerry Zaks. In the new staging directed by David Cromer, Stiller plays the lead role of Artie Shaughnessy, a Central Park zoo keeper and would-be songwriter.
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The actor’s co-stars are Edie Falco as Bananas, Artie’s mentally challenged and unloved wife, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Bunny, Artie’s girlfriend.
“Blue Leaves” takes place on the day in October 1965, when Pope Paul VI passed through the Borough of Queens in a motorcade en route to the United Nations to plead for an end to the war in Vietnam. Young Ronnie Shoughnessy has fled the Army and returned to his family’s apartment with a vague plan to kill the Pope with homemade bomb.
Guare’s odd play, an awkward blend of farce and more serious matters, is damagingly light on comedy this time. The balance required to make “The House of Blue Leaves” work ideally is indeed delicate, and director Cromer doesn’t appear to have found the key. Stiller doesn’t seem to have inherited a genuine gift for comedy from his parents, Anne Meara and “Seinfeld” favorite Jerry Stiller.
An unseemly kind of rigidity appears to have entered Cromer’s production, leaving only actress Falco’s performance as Bananas with any audience sympathy.
As written, Artie Shaughnessy is enormously moving, a poignant portrait of a man who is confronted by failure and disappointment at every turning. A couple of months before Pope Paul VI’s highly publicized intention of visiting the United Nations, Artie has encountered Bunny Flingus in a steam room and fallen in love. Suddenly he sees a way out of his misery, if he can manage to put the aptly named Bananas in a mental institution and escape to Hollywood. He envisions a collaboration with Billy Einhorn, a boyhood friend who has become a successful film producer, and who might use Artie’s somgwriting talent.
Guare’s rather awkward way of finding a conclusion for his play involves a trio of nuns and Einhorn’s hearing-impaired film actress girlfriend, Corinna Stroller. This briefly seen Los Angeles couple are nicely played by Thomas Sadoski and Alison Pill.
The new production of “The House of Blue Leaves,” scheduled for 14 weeks on Broadway, is, sadly, a perfect example of what can happen to a play when the director and his actors have failed to find the precise secret to what made it work when it was new.
Scott Pask’s surprisingly dreary set doesn’t help matters much either, slipping beyond mere clutter into actual ugliness. The light touch, which might have brought the production into clearer focus, is, alas, virtually nowhere to be seen.