Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2011
The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare. Directed by David Cromer. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Fitz Patton & Josh Schmidt. Hair/wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with Thomas Sadoski, Mary Beth Hurt, Christopher Abbott, Halley Feiffer, Susan Bennett, Jimmy Davis, Tally Sessions, Alison Pill.
The revival of the play that just opened at the Walter Kerr has them, in both its leads (Stiller, graduated from supporting role to lead; Edie Falco; and Jennifer Jason Leigh) and its director (David Cromer). Whether it has the spark it needs to ignite its own legends is another matter.
Cromer is unquestionably a major talent, if not the major talent from the past decade with the promise of saving theatre from itself. Having done impressive work on several shows (the new plays Orson's Shadow and When the Rain Stops Falling, the new musical Adding Machine, the short-lived Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs) and genre-redefining work on another (the brilliant Off-Broadway Our Town of 2009), he would seem ideal for revisiting and rescuing The House of Blue Leaves from the ghosts that still haunt it. But because Cromer never does anything in the expected way, his particular take is not always an easy sell.
Intentionally sloppy and delightfully messy, Guare's play looks at a stamped-in-the-mud Queens family that's falling apart on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York in 1965. Artie Shaughnessy (Stiller), is a zoo worker whose home life is less ordered than the wild animals to which he tends. His wife, Bananas (Falco), is so simpleminded she's destined for an institution. Their son, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott), is plotting to blow up the Pope. Meanwhile, Artie is preparing to run off to California with his downstairs neighbor, Bunny Flingus (Leigh), to ply his songwriting side gig full time for his Hollywood power-broker friend, Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski).
It's a collage of crazy that eventually also encompasses a deaf starlet (Alison Pill) and three nuns (Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Bennett, Halley Feiffer) hoping to glimpse the Pope. And yet, simmering beneath it all are the real troubles of real people who've been left behind by a fast-moving, star-craving public, and have barely found ways to make themselves noticed to each other, let alone the world at large. These are all elements of the disaffected mid 1960s, true, but are perennially relevant, as the 1986 revival reportedly proved.
Balancing the darkness and daffiness is job one for any director, and Cromer has not evened the scales. As with Brighton Beach Memoirs, he's plumbed unusually far into the tragedy, unearthing more melancholy notes than he does comic ones. This was obviously with the hope that more honest laughs would emerge with more honest portrayals of all the central concerns, something that is frequently solid (and often more interesting) theatrical thinking.
But 45 years of social wear and tear has naturally reconfigured the play, to the point that the top coating of bizarre has become so thin that there's no longer much to rethink. In fact, the myriad serious moments are now so identifiable as the soul of the work that, except for several spots in the first half of the second act when everyone converges on Artie's living room, the show needs more silly-tinged weirdness, not less. Whatever else The House of Blue Leaves may become, turgid tragedy would be its deadliest destination.
Cromer avoids that, but just barely; the production is enjoyable, but it never decides on either wall-to-wall fun or scaling the heights and depths of these tortured souls. In too many scenes, it's mushy rather than sharp, and indecisive rather than confident. The right quality is consistently projected by Scott Pask's cluttered, indifferent hole of an apartment set, which Brian MacDevitt has persuasively lit, but not by much else.
Stiller brings his finely honed sense of Everyman humor to Artie, but is earnest almost to a fault, injecting few details to explain precisely why he is so bereft of self-awareness. Likewise, Falco renders Bananas a thoroughly pathetic figure: She wrings out your heart with each new injustice she endures, but you don't see what attracted her to Artie in the first place, and at times she strains under the weight of having to carry everyone else's emotional burdens. Abbott is so angry and brooding that he comes across not as a directionless young man but a cold-blooded killer with no place in civil society; Pill, all radiant frosted glamour, and the nuns find a much better blend.
As does Leigh, giving the most authentic-feeling performance. Dippy and dopey, something of a drunken cross between Jacqueline Kennedy and Marlo Thomas, she makes no attempt to camouflage the needy sadness that's driving Bunny to drive apart a family on the basis of the possibility of a new life in California. Leigh plays her as an opportunist, yes, but one who hasn't lost sight of the challenges she will forever face. She's armed with fewer illusions about life and how it can be lived, which is why she's best poised to achieve those goals.
Leigh makes sure we know that Bunny knows that her success (such as it is) is no accident: Getting what you want, and what you need, doesn't just happen. The same is true with The House of Blue Leaves. Cromer and his company have worked hard to make this a newer, more realistic vision of the play, work that leads to an outcome that, like so much else in these characters' lives, can be too strenuous for its own good.