The House of Blue Leaves
Written by John Guare
Directed by Emily Plumb
Metzler Productions by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.
Midtown International Theatre Festival (www.midtownfestival.org for showtimes)
Workshop Theater MainStage 312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor
Non-union production (through August 4, 2007)
Review by Maura O’Brien
Fame is an elusive thing; especially for Artie Shaughnessy (William Demanlow), the lead character in The House of Blue Leaves, John Guare’s play about the lives of restless nobodies with dreams of stardom. Immediately, Artie’s inability to command attention is highlighted. With the audience still filing in, the entire cast emerges from a trunk like a collection of wind-up toys. There is an incoherent mess on stage as they all stretch and Artie tries to perform his solo act. He begins his own play to the sound of distracted chatter, pleading for a blue spotlight. That glorious beam focuses on no single talent, but instead illuminates the average life of Artie Shaughnessy on a less than average day. As a farce, the new production at the Midtown International Theatre Festival is certainly enjoyable, but the ridiculous plot and the pratfalls obscure any understanding of motive. By the play’s conclusion the meaning of a successful performance is as elusive as success.
The initial confusing presentation of the cast exemplifies the lack of coherence that persists throughout the play—pretty much anything that can happen does happen. The year is 1965 in Sunnyside, Queens, and the frenzied plot is set against the backdrop of the looming war in Vietnam and the imminent arrival of the Pope. His Holiness’s visit infects the characters with a hysterical desire to bask in the light of his presence, none of it religiously based. Artie is a zoologist and amateur pianist who hopes a papal blessing will save him from his tedious life and forgive him for leaving his sick wife, Bananas (Jessica Love-Adcock). Artie’s mistress, Bunny Flingus, played delightfully over-the-top by the commanding Elizabeth Yocam, insists that having their union blessed will set Artie on the path to stardom. The Pope’s fame also gives Artie’s son, Ronnie (Sean Parker), a chance to gain notoriety for blowing him up.
Similar to other plays by Guare, The House of Blue Leaves is hyper self-aware. The characters frequently turn to the audience for approval, affirmation, and sympathy. In their desperate struggle for attention, all of the characters are performing all of the time. Artie vies for the spotlight with the loud-mouthed Bunny and the charmingly eccentric Bananas. Although the attention-grabbing qualities of the two women are grossly exaggerated, the actresses are charismatic, and often get the laughs or tears they seek. Guare’s script and Emily Plumb’s direction push the characters into the spotlight, exposing them to the audience in confessional monologues. In the role of Bananas, Love-Adcock is particularly affecting. With her watery, but intense black-eyed stare she sometimes looks like an animal at the zoo, unaware of why she is being watched and what she should do. However, at other times she is the consummate performer, offering up clever one-liners.
As Artie, Demanlow struggles to keep the play on track. True to his character, he is far less arresting than his female co-stars, and his weariness is palpable in his hangdog expression and his tired tunes. His performance is also marked by the despairing selfishness of his character, which may be his damning flaw, if such moralistic judgments made sense in this play.
Emphasizing the disconnectedness between the individual performers, director Emily Plumb uses all four corners of the stage, often leaving chasms of space between her actors. The bare bones and somewhat uninspired set only makes the vastness seem bleaker. Plumb attempts to conquer the space by having the characters rotate into and out of the spotlight downstage, with frequently successful timing. However, as the plot spirals out of control, so too does the blocking. The flurry of action is exciting, but does little to enhance our understanding of the characters.
The only coherent theme is the notion of achieving any type of fame in any way. The vaudeville-style performances echo Ronnie’s impromptu audition for Billy Eidhorn, Artie’s childhood friend and a famous director. After he watched Ronnie perform every trick he knew, and mimic a series of emotions to prove his range and talent, Billy concluded that the child must have been mentally retarded. Indeed, the goofy performance of Sean Parker seems like the projection of mental imbalance. While the performances are fun sketches of insanity, it is unclear how they relate to the devastating effects of fame. In fact, the more aggressive the dance, the more laughter gained. Throughout the play, the concept of fame is left undefined and unexplored. This is not necessarily the fault of the production; the play itself seems to be conflicted when it comes to making a clear point.
After a chain of more and more unbelievable events, including a brawl between beer-drinking nuns, an M.P. and an army deserter, and a deadly bomb explosion in an elevator, Artie is finally the sole figure in the spotlight, but he has no fans left in the house. The desperate desire for fame might be what undoes Artie, but it also makes for a compelling production, further complicating Guare’s tongue-in-cheek attack on show business. The play is too farcical to be a morality or cautionary tale. For all the desperation and sadness of its characters, this show is fun, and its tragic conclusion offers little in the way of a sobering pause.
Copyright 2007 Maura O’Brien
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