Part side-splitting comedy, part romance, part farce, and part dark drama, John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, a play set in a Queens apartment on October 4, 1965, occurs on a day when New York City is a-buzz while residents await a rare visit by the Pope. Simultaneously planning to send his schizophrenic wife to a sanitarium and marry his neighbor, Artie Shaughnessy must also deal with visits from his politically-warped son, a movie star with a secret and a trio of nuns obsessed with meeting the Pope. Having not appeared on a professional Atlanta stage in recent memory, The House of Blue Leaves is a perfect choice for any Atlanta theater’s upcoming season.
Except for the opening scene, the entire play takes place in the common room of an apartment. Therefore, the level of complexity for staging is up to the theater. Larger theaters (in both size and pocketbook) can get as detailed as desired, but the play can be just as effective with a sparse set consisting of only a few pieces of living room furniture.
In addition to not requiring an extensive set, the play calls for a cast that is of manageable size for small theater companies. The cast of eleven roles consists of characters of varying ages. Guare has crafted each character with a punch that the actors fortunate enough to play them will revel in interpreting.
This past May, I was privileged enough to experience the recently-closed Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Not knowing very much about the play’s plot, I went in with an open mind despite reading the mixed but mostly dismal reviews the production received. The play not only lived up to the little expectations I had for it, but surpassed them.
Critics championed Emmy Winner Edie Falco of Sopranos and Nurse Jackie fame as the one redeeming quality of a misguided production. Falco rightly deserved all the praise thrust upon her for her inspired embodiment of Bananas; however, the rest of the cast deserved praise on par with hers. Movie stars Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh shared a charming chemistry and delivered their lines with refined skill.
So where did this production go wrong? It was the not actors directed by David Cromer, nor was it the exquisite set by Scott Pask. The only thing that makes sense was that this 2011 Broadway revival was not the 1986 Broadway revival. That highly-praised production was on each critic’s mind as he watched this interpretation. Additionally, the critics, most having seen a previous production, were well versed in the play’s storyline, which allowed for no surprises.
Although I have only seen a production of this play once, I find it hard to imagine enjoying it as much as I did the first time I saw it. Sure, it would be enjoyable (and I do want to see the play again), but at any future viewing I will know the absurdities that are about to ensue and will be aware of the unsettling final scene that is just around the corner.
By simply printing a character list in the newspaper, any Atlanta theater will draw interest in a production of this quirky play. Fans of the show will enjoy seeing a new interpretation, but those who will enjoy it most will be those who go in blind. With each bizarre comment and absurd twist to the plot, new audiences will be amused, mesmerized and shocked by this smart piece of theater.
– A. Wesley