The House of Blue Leaves

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 1, 2011

    Tulis McCall

    I am so faklempt on this one. This is an extraordinary production that left me reeling. Seriously! I walked along the street with my friend muttering, "What? Whaaaaaat? What was that???" It makes me want to read an essay that would explain this play to me.

    This is a dense parcel of material. Dense in concept: a lonely guy who works at the Central Park Zoo and has aspirations of being a singer/songwriter lives with his wife in a run down apartment in Queens. His name is Artie Shaunessie (Ben Stiller) and hers is Bananas Shaunessie (Edie Falco). Yes, Bananas. And, although she was not at the time this nickname was given her, Bananas is bananas now. We never find out how she got that way. We never find out a lot of things in this play. Instead we must be satisfied with the Here and Now even as it flees and turns into the past. The past we see is the only one we can count on, although not for long.

    Artie is in the throws of new love with his downstairs neighbor Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They met in the steam room at the Baths, and she may not have been his downstairs neighbor when they met two months ago (we never find out….). Bunny is just the ticket for a guy whose self-esteem is nearly flat-lining. As a matter of fact, Bunny is pretty much good for a supporting word to anyone, even Bananas. She is willing to dispense advice on pretty much any subject in that tiny nasal voice with the thick Queens accent. Bunny is secure in knowing that she has the inside scoop on account of her leading such a varied professional life.

    Her most recent project is to take advantage of the Pope’s visit to New York, stand within eyeshot and receive a Papal dose of good luck. After that, Artie can commit Bananas to a hospital in Long Island where he once saw a tree that had blue leaves, and for the two of them to hi-tail it to California. Once in California, Artie can look up his best friend since forever, Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadosky) who is a successful film director. They will become a team. Bunny will become Artie's wife and cook meals that are pure ecstasy. The End!

    The snag arrives in the form of Artie's son, Ronnie, who has gone awol from the Army. Ronnie has some weird plans of his own. We never find out why. Along with Ronnie come a small flock of nuns who are in town to see the Pope and who got waylaid on the roof. We never find out why. Next arrives Billy's fiancé, Corrinna Stroller (Alison Pill) bearing gifts from Billy. She is recently deaf but doesn't want anyone to know so the conversation goes from the already bizarre to the superlative bizarre. Then there is the hospital attendant who comes to get Bananas, and Billy himself who shows up for the final act.

    This is like Brecht meets Beckett and the result is handed over to the Marx brothers who put all the characters in a Spill-And-Spell Jar and shake vigorously.

    There is a futility to every character we meet. It is the time in which they live that beats them up. Or is it? Is Guare tracking these sad ones because he is trying to tell us something or because he is simply compelled to follow them – the way people are compelled to watch a car accident?

    At the top of the show, Bunny reassures Artie about his dreams by explaining the ways of the universe: “When famous people go to sleep at night, it’s us they dream of, Artie. The famous ones — they’re the real people. We’re the creatures of their dreams.” This play is located in the dead center of that divide between awake and asleep, where desires are so close you can touch them, and disappointment is nipping at your butt. It is funny and poignant and unsettling in the extreme.

    A little too close to home, this one, thanks in main part to this cast who leaps from the tower night after night and lands smack in the middle of the bucket of water far, far, away.

    What the popular press said...

    "Few laughs emerge from ... the somber new revival."
    Ben Brantley for NY Times

    "Wild and crazy work cries out for extremes, and this starry production ... is too tame and emotionally mellow."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News

    "Together, these characters make up Broadway's most oddball gallery, flailing in a hot mess of a play. But you can't get them out of your head, and that counts for a lot."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Stiller needs more time to get a purchase on the role that made “Frasier’s” John Mahoney a star, but he’s funny and flummoxed and believable."
    Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg

    "Unfortunately, director and play are not a perfect fit. Cromer's kitchen-sink approach doesn't work for Guare's zany dreamers."
    David Sheward for Back Stage

    "A terrifically resonant play about our search for who we are."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Disappointing Broadway revival... 'The House of Blue Leaves' is a lovely play about muddled American values that deserves better than this sorry revival."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "It’s impossible to ignore the nagging evidence that this is not a great match of director and material. cries out overall for a lighter touch."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "Guare's iconic play not only holds up, it still sets the bar for smart comic lunacy."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety