First staged in 1971, The House of Blue Leaves is a descendant of the kitchen sink dramas and average joe tragedies that marked the American and British theater scenes in the turbulent decade following the Second World War. The difference, of course, is a novel set of political complications and threats to the cultural status quo – Vietnam, high profile assassinations, the advent of the Civil Rights movement – as filtered through a television screen.
Director Matt Bannister’s rendition of John Guare’s classic play emphasizes the dark underbelly of the American dream, and how it is skewed by the uncritical and starry-eyed consumption of media. This cautionary, if not hopeless, play takes on another layer of relevance given our current political dilemma and the exacerbating role of the media.
The House of Blue Leaves is the story of a delusional zookeeper named Artie Shaughnessy (Gary Sullivan) who dreams of becoming a famous songwriter. Tending to his fantasies is his crackpot mistress, Bunny Flingus (Annette Kalicki), who insists (for her benefit as much, if not more, than his) that he reach out to his childhood friend turned hotshot Hollywood director Billy Einhorn (Ron Ward) for a big break.
Artie’s schizophrenic wife, Bananas (Maura Suilehban), torments the dreaming duo with her displays of madness, a reminder made manifest that life is not so glamorous. Meanwhile, Artie’s recently drafted son, Ronnie (Anson Berns), hides out in the back room of Artie’s apartment unbeknownst to the rest of the “family,” while the Pope’s grand visit to the city serves as a backdrop motivating the characters to take action in their lives.
From the opening scene, however, it’s apparent Artie has no talent when he tries and fails to captivate an uninterested audience at amateur hour with his knockoff piano tunes. Despite Bunny’s life-affirming presence, the you-can-do-it libido she instills in Artie is self-interested so much as it might also be a genuine expression of her ignorant support. The back and forth flirting and fighting between Sullivan’s Artie and Kalicki’s Bunny in the first act is the comic peak of the entire play, at least in this rendition.
Kalicki is a motorboat force of charm and positive energy that can be felt offstage, while Sullivan manages to inhabit a man simultaneously being blown up by confidence (or hot air) and crippled by obligation and insecurity.
Kalicki and Sullivan’s chemistry alone in this first act almost manages to convince you of their hair-brained plot to make it big in sunny California, but over time the two are flattened into caricature as their dreaming snowballs into foolishness. In any case, despite Bunny’s proclamations that the blessed aura of the Pope is weaving miracles into everyone’s lives, little else about this production gives hope a chance. Though it’s unsure if Guare did either.
Act II opens on a distressing note, with Berns’ Ronnie coming out of hiding to an empty apartment where he delivers a monologue to the audience envisioned as the other side of a television set. Instead of a more traditional audience aside, each character at some point freezes the action to speak to the television; the screen is situated at a corner facing the stage as if it is an audience member front and center.
The stage goes black in these moments, save for the manic blue glow of the television that illuminates the speaker and shrouds his or her monologue in an unnerving static buzz to match the grim nature of the confession.
In his director’s note included in the program, Bannister talks about wanting to take the play in a darker direction – the chilling effect of these “television asides” are brilliant expressions of this desire. Ronnie’s long sinister monologue is intended to set the stage for the rest of the play’s mounting bleakness, but unfortunately, Berns’ interpretation is limited in its one-dimensional anger as he can’t seem to fill out all the nuances of his character.
The rest of the play takes a claustrophobic and cacophonous turn with the entry of a flock of eccentric nuns, Billy’s deaf movie star girlfriend Corinna Stroller (Brynn Crasney), Ronnie and his military keeper, and ultimately the great Billy himself. The noise of the second act feels messy and overwhelming as if the personalities and actions of the characters are blending into each other like multiple tv channels on at the same time devolving into white noise. Some tragic conclusions feel like side notes as a result.
Obsession with fame and glory betrays a certain existential despair and a flailing belief in our (hidden) inherent exceptionalism. Artie represents a longing to be the exception, not the common man but the sort of man you read about in the papers, that you see on the television. It would seem that a good life is only meant for these talented few, not the indistinguishable masses. This final point is made evident by Billy and Artie’s heartbreaking final exchange, which, although a little too on the nose in its pessimism, is crushing to watch as Sullivan’s Artie deflates into a man scorned.
Credit must be given to Leigh K. Rawls set design, which is so beautifully meticulous in its careful attention to detail. I could spend hours simply looking at all the random objects in Artie’s New York City apartment, with its stacks of old books and records and magazines, its Normal Rockwell prints, and postcards from California that all serve to ground this production in the dreams and culture of the period.
And then there is Maura Suilehban’s Bananas, an affecting and delicate performance that conveys humor and wisdom, fear and love without ever losing sight of her crippling sickness. Without needing to verbalize a longing for a better life, Bananas is the most human of the lot.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.