Put together some seriously disturbed characters and the ever elusive American Dream and the atmosphere is bound to get explosive. In John Guare’s famous play, The House of Blue Leaves, mental illness, an irreverent look at religion, and bizarre relationships take center stage. That doesn’t mean that this play isn’t funny because director Katherine Almquist knows just how and when to release Guare’s humor in this memorable tragicomedy.
Artie Shaughnessy thinks of himself as a singer-songwriter. By day he’s a zookeeper, a most appropriate job for a man who tries to keep everything under control even though his home and life are quite out of control. Like so many people, Artie dreams of being a Hollywood success with his singer-songwriter talents. More timely than ever with stars becoming overnight sensations thanks to YouTube, it seems that trying to be rich and famous still holds a firm place in the American dreamscape. This in spite of the fact that so many people fail to achieve their dream.
Because Artie’s old school chum, Billy, has made it big in Hollywood, Artie believes that Billy will help him achieve great fame as well. This is clearly ironic since Artie’s performance at an amateur nightclub is a dismal disappointment. Continually prompted by his mistress Bunny to contact the great Billy, he finally makes the call to his friend.
Artie’s wife, nicknamed Bananas, is continually humiliated by Bunny’s presence in her home. Artie keeps assuring his wife that she will enjoy being institutionalized in a facility they visited, which they refer to as The House of Blue Leaves. Ironically, the characters in this play all seem crazy, some more than others.
Just when you’re heart is aching for Bananas, Almquist shines the spotlight on the farcical undertones of the play and you have to laugh out loud. For instance, Artie’s mistress, Bunny, will not cook for him. She’ll have sex with him but has put her foot down and until Artie institutionalizes his wife and marries Bunny, she won’t cook.
Set in a Queens, N.Y., apartment, all the characters are excited about Pope Paul VI passing through their neighborhood on the way to the United Nations to speak against the war in Vietnam. Artie’s son Ronnie has left the army without permission and secretly returns home in order to assassinate the Pope. Ronnie believes that as a child his dream for success in one of Billy’s productions was ruined and is now determined to make the headlines by killing the Pope with his homemade bomb. Add to this crazy assemblage, the arrival of Billy’s deaf girlfriend, three nuns, and Billy himself and you have the makings for a wildly funny though terribly tragic play.
The casting couldn’t be more perfect. John Fabiani is better than ever in the role of Artie. He plays the zookeeper off centered enough to make him rather simple but not unlikeable. After all, he’s a dreamer. Keli Solomon will bring tears to your eyes and wring you out to dry as Bananas while Stacy-Lee Frome as Bunny offers the perfect counterpoint with her bossy, know it all, sassy portrayal. Alex Skye Desjardin as the totally whacky Ronnie adds excitement and action to the play. Rufus de Rham as Billy is so genuinely good, especially at crying, that you immediately recognize and applaud his incredible acting skill. Also delivering good performances are: Blythe Everett, Judy Sullivan, Jessica Gleason, Adam Battelstein, Jeffrey Alan Solomon, and Erin Shaughnessy.
This is an excellent play and is not performed often enough. Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” has been far more widely produced. Under Katherine Almquist’s direction, artfully rendered with absolute clarity, this “House of Blue Leaves” is an exceptionally fine production of an exceptionally fine play.
Bill Hughes’ set design works well, even though the television set is squeezed in a most awkward place. Lisa Bonelli’s costumes are character appropriate and Joseph Russo’s wigs are terrific. Al Chiappetta’s lighting and David White’s sound designs work well. The production runs through May 14. Box office: 860-354-3622.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]