Ben Stiller Enters The House of Blue Leaves Through a New Door
By Harry Haun
Here's one for Mr. Ripley: A quarter of a century separates the two Broadway credits of Ben Stiller, and he still hasn't left The House of Blue Leaves.
In the 1986 revival of John Guare's kooky 1971 comedy, Stiller bowed as the son of the house, Ronnie Shaughnessy, a bomb-brandishing, Vietnam-bound AWOL soldier. Now, in the revival opening April 25 at the Walter Kerr, the Hollywood film director-writer-star is head of the house, the "equally steady" Artie Shaughnessy, the zookeeper and would-be songwriter.
And, if you pushed it, you could find Stiller in on the ground floor of The House of Blue Leaves 40 years ago, long before "Tropic Thunder," "Meet the Fockers," "Zoolander" and "Night at the Museum." Playwright Guare remembers it well: "There's this wonderful home movie of Ben at age five, in a little suit and necktie and overcoat, with a copy of the script in front of the Truck and Warehouse Theatre, yelling at me, shaking his fist, demanding rewrites — and I'm bowing and taking notes from him."
It seems Stiller's mom, Anne Meara, was in the show's original cast, playing Bunny Flingus, Artie's dippy mistress from downstairs, and Baby Ben, like it or not, was a regular stage door Johnny. "I remember being around the production a lot when I was little," he said. "The history of the play — it's pretty layered with my family."
So what is it like returning to Square One a third time? "It's really interesting to come back to this," he conceded right off. "First of all, when [producer] Scott Rudin asked me, 'What about doing House of Blue Leaves?' — the realization I could play Artie, that I was even old enough! Then, on second thought, 'Oh, yes, I guess I am.' Twenty-five years have gone by. It brought up all sorts of interesting thoughts about where I am in life, looking at it as a bookend to that first production. I thought that was great, all that stuff it brought up and how I could relate to playing the character."
In a very real sense, he can't go home again — nor does it want to: "What I think is really exciting about this production is that it's a totally different vision of the play because our director, David Cromer, never saw that production. That was what was exciting to me — a chance to really reinvent in a way that its own reality doesn't relate to that first production. I felt that production was so great and was so its own thing that there was no way anybody could ever top that for what it was. So the only thing is to be able to go in and say, 'What's David's vision of this play going to be?'"
Both of Stiller's parents in the '86 show — John Mahoney (Artie) and Swoosie Kurtz (as the unhinged, housebound Bananas Shaughnessy) — took Tonys, and his potential stepmom from downstairs, Stockard Channing, made the running as well. Jerry Zaks' quirky direction and Tony Walton's chaotically cluttered set were also honored.
Mahoney proved to be as great a pal off stage as he was dad on stage. "I just remember John telling how great he was all the time, then rubbing his Tony in my face," cracked Stiller. "It was my first job in the theatre, and he was wonderful to me.
"In fact, during the run of the show, I actually made a little short film behind the scenes about John — sort of a little take-off on his life as an actor — and then I did another film that I ended up selling to 'Saturday Night Live,' which was a take-off on the just-released 'Color of Money' starring John and a lot of people in the show.
"So, for me, I was sorta like figuring out what I wanted to do as a director, and John was so supportive of that. Also, he was so funny. We had so much fun together."
If Stiller is experiencing some telltale déjà vu, it at least is coming at him from a different angle. "Everybody in the play believes the play's about them — and Ronnie, for sure! Ronnie's whole part is: he comes out and he talks to the audience about what he wants to do with the Pope. He was very focused, so, for me, I always looked at the play from that character. It was just about me, and the rest of the play was all this other stuff that went on before and after until it got to Ronnie's part.
"Now, to look at Artie as a full person and to really see what he wants and what he needs and how he relates — it's almost like a whole different experience. And then just to find my own reality in that guy and his desires — he has all these desires for fame and to be validated and all these things — these needs, these deep needs. It's almost like there's no subtext in the play. It's all out there. People say their subtext.
"This is a brand-new adventure for me because it doesn't relate to anything I did the first time around. To look at Artie's relationship with Ronnie — from Artie's side — is really interesting. I only knew Ronnie's side of it. Now to understand how Artie feels about his son, how that relationship's going to be — it's about finding it for myself."
Christopher Abbott, who was Laila Robins' spectacularly unsettled son in Off-Broadway's That Face last year, is the new Ronnie — and, to date, there haven't been any notes from the old Ronnie. "We haven't gotten to 'chum about it,'" admitted Abbott. "I'm waiting, man. I'm waiting for him to give me some pointers on how to do it."
But he seems to be on the right track: Breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly "is easier if you imagine the audience has always been there, watching these people live somewhat normal lives in this cramped little apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. If it is a crazy environment, the people who are in it don't think so. That's the wonderful thing about it, and that's what makes it fun to play. If you're playing crazy, you don't think you're crazy. You think everyone else is crazy."
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