Well directed by Michael P. Donahue and performed by a super cast, Providence Players of Fairfax presents John Guare’s wacky, fast-paced black comedy The House of Blue Leaves. The play is sent in 1965 Queens during Pope Paul VI’s visit to The Big Apple and is filled and involves a zookeeper and his ‘off the wall’ wife, a GI who is about to be shipped off to Vietnam, and lots of nuns.
Our leading man, hopeful New Yorker Artie Shaughnessy, is charmingly played by Adam Downs. Artie first introduces himself to the audience by hopping up onstage for a drunken open-mic, initiating the first of the play’s many fourth-wall breaks. Downs’ character humorously swings the audience along a routine that has all the effort but no actual musical ability.
Shaughnessy carves his catchphrase “I’m too old to be a young talent!” onto the rock standing between himself and the commercial success that isn’t waiting for him. Not in New York, where he takes care of his bleakly schizo wife, Bananas (the zany Beth Whitehead), nor in California, where he and his vivacious girlfriend Bunny (Jayne Victor) plan to meet up with his longtime and conveniently successful friend, Billy Einhorn (Michael P. Donahue). In the meantime, Artie and Bunny arrange for Bananas to move into a mental home, and prep for the Pope’s visit, which is apparently the easiest way to shake hands with fame in New York City.
While the fame and public figure obsession of the 1960s is still recognizable in our world today, the politically incorrect, callous treatment of Whitehead’s schizophrenic character is not. Beth Whitehead captures both sides of Bananas’ illness perfectly, either pleading with the other characters through erratic body movements and dog imitations, or staring at them with glossy and complacent, yet medicated and stagnant, eyes. The other characters share none of the hope she has for herself, and openly mock her while mentioning how much better their lives will be once she’s sent to the loony bin. Although these comments undoubtedly serve to put the “black” in “black comedy” and are backed up with exceptional performances, seeing mental illness treated in such a tone was marginally uncomfortable for me at times.
Despite this, House of Blue Leaves deserves its acclaimed for balancing the light and the heavy, and Director Michael P. Donahue accentuates the production’s humor enough to leave the audience feeling entertained and thoughtful.
Jayne Victor (Bunny), appropriately dressed in hot pink tights, newspaper shoes, and an “I Love Paul” pin (kudos to Costume Designer Christian Faulkner) helps preserve this vibe. Victor successfully delivers exuberant and amusing dialogue every time her mouth opens, while bringing enough spunk to make her lines more than just a punchline. A gaggle of ridiculously sacrilegious nuns (really Pope fangirls) together with Artie and Banana’s son Ronnie (Andrew Rampy) gives the second act a slapstick component.
All these characters fly in and out the front door of the Shaughnessy’s typical Queens apartment throughout the play. Set Designer John Coscia transforms the stage top to bottom into a roomy, layered space. The intimately lit set provided by Lighting Designer Jimmy Gertzog, is covered in authentic 60’s appliances, furniture, and posters galore supplied by Set Decorators Lisa Church and Pam Pavord. The excellent sound design is provided by Barbara Jo and Chip Gertzog. (The Gertzogs are a talented family of designers).
Providence Players of Fairfax once again offers audiences a chance to revisit a classic and provides a funny, yet poignant production, featuring fine performances by a very talented cast. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one-15 minute intermission.
The House of Blue Leaves plays through March 29, 2014 at Providence Players of Fairfax performing at The James Lee Community Center Theater – 2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church, VA. Purchase tickets online or at the door.