Even before blue leaves start to fall on The House of Blue Leaves, which opened for inspection April 25 at the Walter Kerr, there's an ill wind whipping around the dumpy apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's Oct. 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI visited New York — the first time a reigning pope ever came to this country — and that fact has made everybody a little crazy.
Not that they weren't already. The sad man of this manor is Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper by trade and a songwriter by desire, but he's stuck in this back-corner of drear because he has been bookended by his choice of women, Bananas and Bunny.
The names are no accident. Bananas, long-gone in that direction, is the wife in the grip of agoraphobia, which is aggravated by her husband's affair with the chippie downstairs. This would be Bunny. She and Artie met "cute"—in a steam room.
Three over-the-title stars (Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh) spend Act One hammering out what to do — how to "nicely" drop Bananas off at the nuthouse so Artie and Bunny can get to a proper honeymoon.
Then Act Two lowers the drawbridge, and some more impossible dreamers board the play — three rubbernecking nuns in ecclesiastical ecstasy about their proximity to His Holiness (Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Bennett and Halley Feiffer); a blonde movie goddess whose hearing went south after an on-set mine explosion (Alison Pill) and her hot-shot movie producer-boyfriend who is Artie's hoped-for "open sesame" to Hollywood (Thomas Sadoski).
Oh yes, and the Shaughnessy prodigal, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott), returns as well, AWOL from the Army, with a little ticking present for the Pope.
As you can see, stars and name players have been thrown at this second Broadway renovation of John Guare's 40-year-old dark, daffy opus on galloping dysfunction. If you recall the revival of '86, where director Jerry Zaks went for the zany and the Tony (five big ones), you'd best forget it. That wouldn't help you here. Director David Cromer has gone for a more measured, middle-ground approach, lowering the humor while raising the humanity of these lost souls.
"Our goal was just truthful behavior," Cromer said. "Even in bizarre situations like this, you never abandon truth. That has to happen.
"There's a difference between reality and truth. Reality is realistic. It's based in gravity. You don't suddenly turn to the audience and speak to the audience. This is ideally truthful behavior, which is the behavior of the play. Characters can turn and speak to the audience. Nuns climb over the roof and come in the window. Absurd things happen. That's the truthful world they live in, so that can't be treated as though it's just comedy. It has to be treated like it's really happening so that creates the tilted universe because it's a universe in which things like that happen."
Fittingly, he pointed out, the whole thing is played out on a tilted stage. That's "raked" in the parlance of showfolk.[flipbook]
For a guy who hails (by way of Chicago) from Grover's Corners, NH — he was the director, and the initial stage manager, for 2009's Barrow Street Theatre revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, that play's longest run ever — Cromer spends an inordinate amount of time refereeing home-front chaos, which begs the obvious question if he has an affinity, or a special affection, for the dysfunctional family.
"It was in my lifetime that television shows and plays started to allow for the fact that everyone else's family wasn't perfect but yours," he said. "The illusion that your family was the only one that was screwed up was something that people believed. When John's generation of writers started letting people know other people's home lives were complicated too, that helped people. Actually, it began with Long Day's Journey and continued through '70s with Lanford Wilson and Albee.
"The common experience that you want in the theatre is that you are not alone — literally, that you're not alone, that you're watching it with people wrapped up in the concerns of the people in the play, that your secret worries and fears are not only yours but they're everybody's. That's the unifying power of theatre. I think it's not that they're just dysfunctional. It's that they're flawed and complicated. As ugly as some of those stories are, it's actually an act of grace to give them to an audience."
As the play begins, Artie is discovered somewhere between his zoo office and his carnival-show home, in a seedy nightclub banging out a medley of his non-hits to an apathetic audience. All his songs sound like the same, save for one, and that sounds like "White Christmas" — but Stiller knocks 'em out with a practiced panache that's wholly acted. Truth is, it's his first brush with a piano ever, but his teachers, Gary Dial and Gerard D'Angelo, call him an apt and eager pupil.
"It's motivation when you know you have a date coming up where you have to play in front of an audience," Stiller was quick to point out. "I don't really talk about it much because I feel it's part of who the character is. Artie just plays a little, so it was necessary to do it. I don't want people going, 'Oh, he had to learn to play the piano for it.' It's just part of who Artie is. At first it was hard because I'd never done it before. Playing for people, I found, was very different from playing for yourself. All of a sudden, there's a whole different little level to it. You have to sorta deal with the stuff in your head. Once I got through that, then it was like, 'O.K., I figured out I can still screw up and it'll be O.K.' Understanding how to screw up is important."
Couple the secret of his unsuccess with some insidiously memorable, awful songs dashed off by Guare himself, and you realize why Artie must keep his day job. "The songs are hard to get out of your head," allowed Stiller. "They're just catchy enough."
A fair critique, Guare agreed: "I auditioned the songs for Frank Loesser years ago, and he said, 'They're almost good enough. If it were ten years earlier, I'd sign you.'" The playwright pushed the songwriter in him harder and more seriously for 1998's Landscape of the Body, with Sherie Rene Scott honoring them.
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