Written by John Guare
Directed by David Cromer
Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City

John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” is such a famous play – its premiere in 1971 gave Guare, one of our best playwrights, his first hit -- and the 1986 Lincoln Center Theater revival is still so fresh in the memory that it’s easy to forget what a strange and unconventional play it is. Set on the occasion of Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York City in October of 1965, this black comedy tells the story of Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper who lives in Queens with his mentally ill wife Bananas but dreams of running away with his vivacious girlfriend and downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus to become a songwriter in Hollywood. The other characters include a deaf starlet, a grieving Hollywood filmmaker, a bunch of beer-drinking nuns, and Artie’s son Ronnie, who’s AWOL from the Army and intent on blowing up the Pope with a homemade bomb. 

The key words in that description are “black comedy,” a particular kind of taboo-flouting, absurdist theater that became very popular during the tumultuous 1960s. Plays like Edward Albee’s “The American Dream,” Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” and David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones” reflected an era when the Vietnam War and generational conflicts turned hopes and dreams into cynicism and disillusionment. Whereas farce at its best progresses from small plausible actions into increasingly outlandish ones, black comedy often treats dark subjects cartoonishly at first, lulling the audience into not taking it too seriously until it grabs you by the throat. 

“The House of Blue Leaves” certainly falls in that category. In distinct contrast to Neil Simon sitcoms or the epigrammatic plays of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde, a black comedy doesn’t automatically play itself. It requires a specific directorial tone. The new Broadway revival of “Blue Leaves” looks fantastic on paper. The stars include Ben Stiller as Artie, Edie Falco as Bananas, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Bunny (a role first played by Stiller’s mother, Anne Meara), and the director is David Cromer, who staged phenomenal productions in recent years of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (which ran for two years Off Broadway) and the Broadway revival of Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (which actually managed to move me to tears when I saw one of the seven performances it played before it abruptly closed). Sad to say, Cromer’s production gets it all wrong. 

Cromer makes two big missteps right off the bat. The play begins Artie at the piano at some crappy open mike night playing his jaunty, trying-too-hard-to-be-clever songs for an indifferent, chatty audience. Besides introducing the play’s main character, the scene also establishes the vaudevillean style of the show, in which virtually all the characters speak directly to the audience in front of each other. Weirdly, Cromer has Ben Stiller play this prologue with his back to the audience, addressing the clubgoers as if they’re somewhere offstage. Consequently, throughout the show, whenever someone talks directly to the audience, we’re never sure if they’re talking to us or directing their comments somewhere in mid-air, like a Shakespearean soliloquy – all wrong for Guare.

Even more fatal is Scott Pask’s set, a meticulously detailed schlubby Queens living room and kitchen with piles of period junk all over the place, which would be perfect for a naturalistic drama, exactly what “The House of Blue Leaves” is not. Edie Falco gives a phenomenal performance as a seriously mentally ill woman, a million labile emotions flickering across her sad haunted face, and Stiller gives us an extremely believable rendering of a desperate husband who’s given up on his wife, can’t stand being in the same room with her, and goes from effervescent with his mistress Bunny to silent and coldly furious when Bananas comes in. Playing the characters this way tells the end of the story at the beginning, which is fine for Greek tragedy but not for “The House of Blue Leaves.” It also destroys the comedy and makes their behavior only pathetic or cruel. 

I’m reminded of something Sigourney Weaver said in an interview about acting in plays by Christopher Durang, another auteur of dark absurdist comedy: 

I remember when we did Titanic in which I played this little girl who keeps a hedgehog and a couple of hamsters in her vagina. Now I never think with Chris's plays, and I've always felt lucky that I didn't have to break down the character and analyze the motivations. I never know what my motivation is from one day to the next, so why should my character?

I remember sitting on the table in a little pleated skirt, putting my legs up to feed the hamsters lettuce. I never had any trouble with the scene until this very good teacher of mine who was originally from the Actors Studio came to see the preview and said, "I didn't really feel that the hamsters were in there. I think you should try to feel them moving around when they eat the lettuce," and I thought, "Yes, of course. I have not been really feeling those hamsters." I had always gotten a huge laugh with that scene, but the next night, I was feeling those hamsters, feeding and feeling them, feeding and feeling them, and I didn't get a single laugh. Everyone was thinking "Yuck!" because I was playing it too real. The point of the scene is how ridiculous it is that I am feeding them at the dinner table in a very matter-of-fact, rather ladylike way.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Jason Leigh is giving an entirely different kind of bad performance as Bunny, one pieced together with externals (the grotesque wig, the funny voice). I felt embarrassed for her and also for Thomas Sadoski, another good actor who plays only the externals of the Hollywood director Billy Einhorn – his sorrow, his unreconstructed New York accent – and none of the sly fun. Alison Pill does a good job, cast against type as the glamorous starlet with the malfunctioning hearing aid, and Christopher Abbott is suitably weird as the gonzo kid soldier Ronnie, the role that Ben Stiller played in the Lincoln Center Theater revival. I must say, this production tripled my respect for Jerry Zaks, whose light-handed staging of that revival (and other dark comedies by Guare and Durang) made it all look so easy. But clearly, it ain’t easy., May 4, 2011