Fame's a Cruel Tease in The House of Blue Leaves

05/05/2011 12:30 PM |

The House of Blue Leaves
Written by John Guare
Directed by David Cromer

Theater director and certified genius David Cromer is renowned, in productions like his celebrated Our Town, for finding prosaic beauty amid the lyrical—so he's an unusual choice to helm a play that searches out the sublime in the everyday. John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, a dark farce from 1966 in revival at the Walter Kerr, concerns the nonentity's relationship to the celebrity, so it's set around a stateside papal visit, during which the ultimate superstar plans to speak out against the Vietnam War. As Queens Boulevard swells with the infirm, hoping for a curative glimpse of his holiness, zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller) conspires with his downstairs neighbor and mistress, the starry-eyed chatterbox Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh, hilarious), to leave his schizophrenic wife Bananas (Edie Falco) and run away to Hollywood; there, he hopes to make a career as a songwriter, though his talent is middling and vaguely plagiaristic (even if his melodies are still stuck in your head days after you see the show).

The action takes place within a scenic masterpiece (by Scott Pask): a long, brilliantly realized Queens apartment with accordion gates on the windows and an occupiable roof, spiky with TV antennae, topped with a sky that resembles a roiling ocean defying gravity. (And when's the last time you saw a theatrical set that incorporated the sky?) It's in these three cluttered rooms that Artie force-feeds his wife downers, taking out on her the resentment he feels toward his own station (Stiller, on Broadway for the first time since he played Artie's son in the 1986 revival, employs well the cynical bitterness that has lately become his trademark, from Greenberg to his guest spot on Extras); it's here that his wife, wide-eyed and pale, rolls off the couch, crawls across the floor and barks like a dog. (Falco jumps seamlessly from naivete to blitheness to heartbroken confusion, her shoulders hunched inward, her eyes dead, all without chewing any scenery.) Despite such working-class ruin, the play's tone is blackly comic, and the action leans toward the screwball: in Act II, a trio of nuns drops in for a beer; a secretly deaf starlet stops by to say hi; and Shaughnessy fils arrives, AWOL from Vietnam, dressed like an altar boy and assembling a time bomb. Hilarity abounds—in mistaken identities, dysfunctional hearing aids and rapid-fire dialogue—until the madcappery climaxes with, um, a real bang.

Guare's title refers to a sight Artie beheld on a visit to the mental institution where he plans to commit Bananas: a tree whose apparent blue leaves turned out to be a flock of bluebirds. The illusion encapsulates nicely the play's driving theme: the secret ordinariness of ostensiby extraordinary beauty—celebrities, for example, who beneath the glitz are just like us! Up the chain, the grass always looks more glamorous: the nuns envy the nobodies, the nobodies yearn to be the somebodies, and the somebodies long for anonymity. "When famous people go to sleep at night, it's us they dream of, Artie," Bunny says in Act I. Later, Artie's childhood friend, now Hollywood's leading movie director (played by Thomas Sadoski; in a Broadway in-joke, Allison Pill plays his girlfriend), adds that "anybody can create. But to be an audience?" Fame functions as a cruel tease for our Sunnyside no-names, suggesting that a better life exists just over there when, really, there are so many wonderful things right in front of them—it's just a matter of taking notice. Artie's tragedy, and that of the Americans for whom he stands in, is that he ignores life's low-hanging fruits because he can't take his eyes off the stars.

(photo: Joan Marcus)