I’ve never been a particular fan of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, which comes from the late 60s/early 70s breed of anarchy that took the notion of screwball comedy and put it through a dark, disturbing (and at times surreal) filter. (And I get it. We all got it back then. It was anti-Establishment and a rebellion against pabulum served up in neat structures.) Guare and Mel Shapiro, who carved out a niche directing this kind of fare, with an unbridled and often improvisatory circus-ringmaster extravagance that further encouraged excess in the writing were at the forefront of the style, and built their careers on the original production of Blue Leaves, but in not too many years, Shapiro proved himself a one-trick pony and fell out of favor, rarely to resurface in NY; and Guare expanded his palate, his imprimatur and his horizons. But because the play was a forerunner and made its impact at just the right time, it’s a cultural marker and highly regarded by many. It re-emerged as a late 80s revival under the direction of Jerry Zaks, then a critic’s darling (no slight or irony intended) and at his zenith as a comedy specialist; between its casting and Zaks’ clean brushstrokes, which preserved a calculated illusion of anarchy while keeping a tight reign on everything, the revival proved successful enough to move from the downstairs theatre at Lincoln Center to the upstairs and then to a Broadway house. Now it has returned under the wing of yet another critic’s darling, the formidable director David Cromer who, if he’s known for anything, is his gift for the little flourishes that give characters there deepest, most resonant humanity. Which he brings to bear here.
Curiously, it seems to fail him here. Albeit subtly.
The play’s about Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller) a NYC zookeeper who lives in Sunnyside Queens fancies himself a songwriter, and his songs, though bad, are just competent enough to be facile and just facile enough to encourage self-delusion, and the support of his brash, nasal-voiced girlfriend, Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Bunny’s also encouraging him to finally leave his wife, Bananas (Edie Falco), who suffers from manic depression when she’s not in a drug-induced haze. They comprise the triumvirate at the center, but there are several madcap threads: on this day, October 4, 1965, the Pope is passing through Queens on his way to NYC and three nuns will invade Artie’s apartment hoping for a better view via his TV screen; Artie will call an old neighborhood friend who has become a big deal Hollywood director in search of contact with his roots and a career and a break; and Arrtie’s estranged son, an ex-military explosives expert, is hiding out in the Sunnyside apartment (unbeknownst to either his mother or father) because from there he plans to escape into the Queens Boulevard throng and blow up the pontiff.
Now, Cromer’s no dunce about style. He understands about pacing and comedy and he understands about playing for real stakes. He also knows the difference between pushing for a laugh and the “easy lob” that comes out of authentic behavior. This isn’t a guy who needs an education in craft. No, I think he tried something to make the play speak to the new millennium, and wound up making a very “conscious mistake.” He’s deepened the characters to the point where they’re not quite so madcap anymore—rather, they’re highly particularized eccentrics. Very much in keeping with a modern re-examination of a nearly 40-year old play. It’s thoughtful, it’s artful and it’s just that much across the line that it renders the comedy—not the laugh-for-laugh comedy, but the greater arc—just a little too heavy to sustain whatever it is that made it help define its genre. In fact, it was my friend and colleague, playwright and teacher extraordinaire Jeff Sweet, who pointed out to me what may be the central, most damaging manifestation of this: As portrayed by John Mahoney, in the 80s revival, Artie was a guy who had utter faith in his own charm as a singin’ entertainer. He knew, he knew, he knew that if he just had the break, things would be okay. As played by Ben Stiller, Artie keeps up the front of belief…but it’s always informed by a patina of flop sweat fear that no matter what he does, he’s destined to fail, and that gives his desperation a claustrophobic airlessness. We don’t get behind him because he’s not behind himself.
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