Theater Works has scored solidly with a winning production of John Guare's darkly deranged comedy The House of Blue Leaves.
Guare is the author of two pieces I have admired very much, the film Atlantic City and the play and film Six Degrees of Separation. But despite two acclaimed New York productions of Blue Leaves, I have never been a fan of this play. I couldn't find a character who elicited my empathy. Unable to find the door into this bizarre world, I wondered what I was missing.
The House of Blue Leaves burst into theatre history in 1971, when it ran for 337 performances off-Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. It was revived by Lincoln Center in 1986, then transferred to Broadway for 398 performances, starring John Mahoney, Stockard Channing, Christopher Walken and Julie Hagerty.
Despite the glitter, these actors left me cold. Star power could not erase the pervasive impression that this was a play of gross manipulation, stretching credulity beyond the suspension of disbelief.
Theater Works has changed all that with a cast so sympathetic and low-key that I was swept up into this absurdist farce before I knew what was happening. In fact, I'm still not certain what happened. As the woman next to me remarked at the end of the second act, "Who wrote this thing? He is demented!"
Guare creates a world that is so strange that we are uneasy with the uncomfortable theatricality throughout the play. Under the direction of D.B. Bailey, the production heads straight for the sinister realm of madness. It is not so important that we laugh at these characters, Bailey seems to say, as that we understand the complex absurdity that defines our reality.
Consider the plot. It is 1965 in the borough of Queens, on the day the pope is arriving to address the United Nations. A marginally talented songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy is condemned to earn his living as a zookeeper. Billy, his childhood friend, has gone on to fame and fortune as a successful Hollywood director. Saddled with a wife (affectionately nicknamed Bananas) who has gone bonkers, Artie has discovered rejuvenation through a sexy bimbo named Bunny he met in the steam room at the gym.
Bunny has persuaded Artie to have Bananas committed so they can to escape to California, where Artie hopes, with Billy's help, to parlay his songs into movie scores. He has written one song he is convinced will become a classic: "Where is the devil in Evelyn, what's it doin' in Angela's eyes?"
Trying to recapture her husband's love, Bananas has taken on the characteristics of a dog, eating out of a dish on all fours, and licking Artie's hand. Artie's son Ronnie is in basic training at Fort Dix, and is soon to be cannon fodder in Vietnam. Ronnie shows us that the box he is carrying contains the primitive makings of a bomb. He shares with the audience that he plans to blow up the pope.
Three nuns who have been stranded on the rooftop, but who cannot see the Holy Father, beg to be admitted to the apartment to watch the papal parade on television. Shortly afterward, a sexy blond starlet swathed in fur arrives with greetings from Billy, Artie's mogul friend in Hollywood whom she plans to marry. She reveals that she is deaf, and that she is on her way to Australia, where Billy will pay for an operation to restore her hearing. When terrible feedback erupts from her hearing aid, she removes the batteries and is reduced to smiling vapidly in response to all the dialogue she cannot understand.
The House of Blue Leaves is interlaced with rich, dramatic monologues, spoken directly to the audience by the characters. Before long, we become aware that, as obvious as Bananas' lunacy is, she isn't the only one with severe problems.
As convoluted as the plot sounds, it unfolds with an inevitability in the Theater Works production that somehow compels our belief. Long before David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, John Guare concocted a wild ride of a play, whose twists, turns and gravity-defying thrills are completely unpredictable. I guarantee you will be surprised and mesmerized by the climactic moments of this twisted tale.
What makes the production so lively and satisfying is the casting. In the central role of Artie, Tony McGraw actually makes us understand his predicament, and we root for him to find some happiness with his mistress. It is an endearing performance, full of comedy and pathos.
Martha Magee is strident but funny as Bunny. She has perfectly captured the irrepressible life force that marks her as a survivor.
Diane Nieman is stunning as the starlet, sleek in her blond fur coat and totally convincing in her Hollywood persona. The deaf jokes don't work as well as they ought to, but they are less painful than they might be.
Wes Martin is touching as Billy Einhorn, the famous director, and makes us feel the mogul's isolated vulnerability. Josh Fowler is compelling as the crazed terrorist son, as pitiable as he is frightening.
Best of all is the subtle and mercurial performance of Bananas by the incandescent Cathy Dresbach. She never sells out the madness of her character for mere laughs. Rather, she makes the horror of insanity so ironically sane that she illuminates that fragile boundary.
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The excellent set is by Gregory Jaye, and the hilarious costumes are by Margret Emerson.
I promise that you will laugh and be thrilled by this production of The House of Blue Leaves. Even if you don't understand it.
Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Jules Feiffer. He is now a full professor of theatre at Arizona State University.
The House of Blue Leaves continues through Sunday, October 29, at Theater Works, 6615 West Thunderbird in Glendale.