With stories about the papacy finally tapering off, Gothamist was feeling a bit of withdrawal, and thought The House of Blue Leaves might help because it’s about the day in 1965 when Pope Paul VI passed through NYC. The play doesn’t, in the end, have that much to do with the Pope, but far from being disappointed, Gothamist found it to be a top-notch show from start to finish. Written by John Guare in 1970, it has dated only in some of its specific cultural references, like the feel-good tunes that greet you upon entering the theater, or the amusing go-go wardrobe of the female lead. In most other respects, though, the play is still fresh and powerful, and the fantastic cast contributes a great deal to that success.
The whole thing takes place in Artie Shaughnessy’s apartment in Sunnyside; the set, designed by John McDermott, is wonderfully cluttered and authentic-looking. In the tiny theater at T. Schreiber Studio, it feels like you’re in Artie’s living room, providing an immediacy and intimacy that constituted one of Guare’s major innovations. He also often has characters address the audience: in the first scene, Artie acts out his humiliation at an open mike the night before. Jason Tomarken as Artie reminded Gothamist of Robert in Everybody Loves Raymond, with his hangdog look and droll, self-deprecating humor. Artie aspires to write music for movies and often breaks into one of his catchy, silly ditties (you’ll be humming “Where’s the Devil in Evelyn” for awhile). His wife is a depressed, delusional woman nicknamed, appropriately, Bananas; Tatjana Vujosevic makes her a deeply sympathetic, heartbreakingly articulate character. Nonetheless, she’s in such bad shape that Artie’s more or less left her for another amusingly named woman, Bunny Flingus (played with flair by Jane O’Leary). They’re the only ones on stage in the first act, as Bunny tries to get Artie to go with her to see the Pope while he wallows in despair about his home life and his failure to break into show biz, and Bananas demands attention from both of them, receiving threats from Bunny and pills crammed into her mouth by Artie.
In the second act, things go kind of berserk, but the actors manage to keep the drama of various wild events from seeming too over-the-top. The apartment now fills up with a motley array of people: Corinna Stroller, a deaf former actress who’s engaged to Artie’s childhood friend (now a famous director, who also appears later); a group of nuns who want to have a beer and watch the Pope’s appearance; and Ronnie Shaughnessy (portrayed with energetic dark humor by Collin McGee), Bananas and Artie’s son who’s been drafted for Vietnam but has other ideas about what he’s going to do. Several major plot twists crop up in the pell-mell rush to the end, keeping the play from settling into any sort of pat mold or over-dramatizing.
Even if you didn’t look past the surface storyline and the talents of the cast acting it out, The House of Blue Leaves would be immensely enjoyable. Clearly, though, the arrival of the Pope is less a central concern than it is a catalyzing external event that causes all these crazy lives to collide. Still, the idea of the Pope, and of celebrity and fortune in general, is a consistent underlying thread, as everyone wants to make his or her mark on the world and doesn’t care much who they have to hurt in order to do so. It’s a theme that is, if anything, more present in today’s society as it was when the show was first produced, and director Ted Sod has assembled a production that makes Guare’s riff on it hit home with a memorable impact.
The House of Blue Leaves is playing Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Saturday through Sunday at 3pm, at the Gloria Maddox Theater (151 W. 26th, 7th Floor) through May 22; it's only $15, so don't miss it!