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The House of Blue Leaves (04/29/1986 - 03/15/1987)


New York Daily News: "The second time is a charm"

This production of "The House of Blue Leaves" opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse March 19, 1986 and moved to the Vivian Beaumont April 29, 1986. Danny Aiello replaced Christopher Walken in the cast.

In his first success, "The House of Blue Leaves," John Guare skipped so nimbly along the tightrope of tragicomedy that one could only gasp in admiration. Now, 15 years later, and fresh as ever, it returns in an excellent production at the Lincoln Center Theater's Newhouse unit, where it opened last night.

It is Oct. 4, 1965; Queens Boulevard is thronged with the halt and blind and others hoping to see the Pope, who is visiting New York.

In the Shaughnessy's Sunnyside apartment, Artie (John Mahoney), a zookeeper who writes corny pop songs that he hopes will take him to Hollywood, is awakened by his brassy neighbor and mistress Bunny Flingus (Stockard Channing). The two are planning to run off to California as soon as Artie can get his loopy wife Bananas (Swoosie Kurtz) committed.

Meanwhile, the Shaughnessy's son Ronnie (Ben Stiller) plans to blow up the Pope with a crude time bomb. Invading the flat are Corinne Stroller (Julie Hagerty), a beauty who was deafened during the making of her one film, three quarrelsome nuns from Ridgewood, and Corinne's lover, film star Billy Einhorn (Christopher Walken).

The bomb, passed about willy-nilly, blows up Corinne and two of the nuns. Billy talks Bunny into going with him to Australia. Artie, left alone with Bananas, sadly embraces and strangles her.

Why should this be so hilarious? Partly because the characters are cartoon grotesques; partly because of the pun-filled dialogue; partly because the action leaves us almost breathless; but mostly because Guare's black farce is a daring comic dance without a false step.

What a cast! Mahoney, a Chicago actor who made a striking local debut last year in "Orphans," is marvelous as the cockeyed optimist Artie. Channing is superb as his girl friend. Kurtz's dementia climbs to dizzying heights. Walken struts his stuff with flair. Hagerty's Corinne and Stiller's crazed Marine are precisely on target.

Jerry Zaks' direction is brilliant. The set (Tony Walton's), costumes (Ann Roth's) and lighting (Paul Gallo's) wrap up this joyfully giddy entertainment to perfection.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Guare's 'Blue Leaves' in a Flowering of Stars"

This production of "The House of Blue Leaves" opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse March 19, 1986 and moved to the Vivian Beaumont April 29, 1986. Danny Aiello replaced Christopher Walken in the cast.

The new Lincoln Center Theater, supervised by Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, now in its first season, is playing it cool, which is tantamount to saying they are playing it smart.

After deciding to open first the small but elegant Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in the basement of the still dark main house, the repertory choices have been deliberately modest.

Beginning with two David Mamet radio miniatures - which were too slight to fail heavily, although they did ther tinkling best - more ambitiously, yet still cautiously, they now round out their season with a starry revival of John Guare's first palpable hit, The House of Blue Leaves.

And this provides the major success they needed for their first season's credibility - a significant American play, not seen hereabouts since its Off-Broadway premiere 15 years ago, and given with style and authority.

The play is madness running to sanity. Its humors are both anarchic yet rigid, with a kind of kinked morality, and full of an amiability seared and scarred with an ugly, corrosive bitterness.

Guare has said that he was here part inspired - at least in the second act - by seeing Olivier acting on successive nights in Strindberg's Dance of Death and a Feydeau farce.

Strindberg and Feydeau caught up in some nutty vaudeville act by a team of Sid Caesar scriptwriters - yes, you can see the connection.

The play is Sunnyside, Queens - it is not simply that it is set there, it is Sunnyside, Queens. The whole play. Hopes, fears, the subway ride to Manhattan, a digest megillah - bars and baggage, stock and barrel.

Guare's hero is Archie Shaughnessy: Central Park zookeeper by profession, Hollywood songwriter by avocation.

We first meet him on the stage of the El Dorado Bar and Grill - singing his own songs, like his timeless (as in a timelessness that never comes) masterpiece, Where is the devil in Evelyn? What's it doing in Angela's eyes?

Instantly we are at his apartment in Sunnyside - on the dark side of the street.

Soon he is surrounded by his tribe. First we glimpse his son, an Army draftee - it is the days of Vietnam - who steals in from boot camp while the family is asleep. He comes complete with a homemade bomb and a plan to blow up the Pope, who happens to be on a visit to New York this day, Oct. 4, 1965.

Archie also has a schizophrenic wife, who at moments thinks she is a Thurber-like dog, but also has her moments of crazy insight, and can recognize the tune of White Christmas when she hears it.

And then Archie has Bunny Flingus. Bunny is the woman who believes in him. He wants to marry her, she wants to marry him.

Until they are married she will sleep with him but will not cook for him - considering her culinary skills, more of an erotic enticement than her admittedly disappointing prowess in the bedroom.

Finally there is Billy Einhorn. Billy is Archie's childhood friend, but whereas Archie has just made the zoo, Billy has made good. Better than good.

Now he is one of Hollywood's top directors - and Bunny implores Archie to cash in on that old and still honored friendship to make a new start in tinsel city.

The plot doesn't thicken; it hazes over. A flock of nuns descends on the house; they're hoping to get a glimpse of the Pope. Billy's deaf film-star girlfriend turns up, only to be blown up by mistake by the son. A bereaved and grieving Billy arrives to identify the corpse.

How does it all end? Bitterly, and - in my view - unconvincingly, but that is, after all, Guare's business. And even his unlikelihoods can have an odd ring of truth to them.

Neat play construction is not Guare's purpose. He essentially wants to show how the inner reality of a time and place can shimmer with the irrationality of madness.

The new director Jerry Zaks has caught this topsy-turvy realism - there is a link to Joe Orton here - with crystal fidelity. He is helped by Tony Walton's aptly horrendous setting and the sharply observed costumes by Ann Roth, and most of all by the fine-tuned ensemble performance of the cast.

The Chicago actor John Mahoney - why didn't we know about him until he turned up on our doorstep in Steppenwolf's Orphans? - is stunningly good as Archie, especially in his simple eagerness to please, to achieve success by ingratiation.

Here is one of God's salesmen caught in a zoo, and shadowed by the image of a madhouse, Guare's house of blue leaves.

As the women in his life, tough cookie Stockard Channing as Bunny is exquisitely matched by Swoosie Kurtz's soft-cored Bananas.

Other handsomely poised performances come from Christopher Walken as the sentimental yet hardnosed Hollywood mogul, Julie Hagerty, dizzily befuddled as his deaf girlfriend, and Ben Stiller as the psychopath son who once wanted to be Huckleberry Finn.

This is just the kind of drama evening Lincoln Center should be offering us. Now let all of us interested in the company's eventual success breathe just a little easier, and look forward to the next season.

New York Post

New York Times: "John Guare's 'House of Blue Leaves'"

This production of "The House of Blue Leaves" opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse March 19, 1986 and moved to the Vivian Beaumont April 29, 1986. Danny Aiello replaced Christopher Walken in the cast.

Returning to ''The House of Blue Leaves'' 15 years after its Off Broadway premiere, one expects to find a musty, archetypal artifact of late 1960's black comedy. Set in Sunnyside, Queens, on that 1965 day when Pope Paul VI visited New York, John Guare's early, breakthrough play features mockingly observed nuns, a lethal (but farcical) political bombing, a G.I. earmarked for Vietnam and, as a protagonist, a zoo keeper who dreams in vain of making it big in Hollywood as a songwriter. As if that weren't enough countercultural loopiness, the zoo keeper, Artie Shaughnessy, has a wife named Bananas who really is bananas. In the period's R. D. Laing-Ken Kesey tradition, Bananas, a schizophrenic destined for a cuckoo's nest (the house of Mr. Guare's title), is the sanest character in the work.

Yet a funny thing has happened to ''Blue Leaves'' in the loving revival, flawlessly directed by Jerry Zaks, that's been mounted at the Newhouse Theater by Lincoln Center's fledgling theater company. The play no longer seems all that funny, and it's none the worse for the shift in tone. While some of Mr. Guare's jokes are indeed dated remnants of the 60's, his characters and themes have gained the weight and gravity so lacking in his more pretentious recent plays. Time hasn't healed the wounds described in ''Blue Leaves'' - it's deepened them. One still leaves the theater howling at Mr. Guare's vision of losers at sea in a materialistic culture, but the howls are less of laughter than of pain.

Much of that pain derives from an extraordinary performance by Swoosie Kurtz, as Bananas. If Mr. Guare's zaniness is muted here, so is this actress's characteristically daffy comic assault. All but unrecognizable, Miss Kurtz wears a ragged, misbuttoned cardigan over a faded nightgown; her hair is a dark, silver-tinged mop, framing a pallid face with bulging, swimming eyes. Making her first entrance in silence, she stands in the gloomy fringes of her threadbare cage of a living room, watching her husband, Artie (John Mahoney), and his mistress, a platinum-haired downstairs neighbor named Bunny (Stockard Channing), plot their elopement to California. Powerless to do anything to halt the plan - which will place her in the loony bin - the spectral Miss Kurtz exits as quietly as she entered, a catatonic ghost. And without a single line, she casts the entire play in tragic shadows.

''Blue Leaves'' can accommodate that darkness. Mr. Guare has found the terror as well as the absurdity in working-class Queens nobodies who aspire to be somebodies; at its best, his play often seems like ''The Day of the Locust'' as rewritten by Tennessee Williams. Certainly Miss Kurtz seems as lost as Blanche DuBois in her climactic Act I speech, in which Bananas madly recalls having been at 42d Street and Broadway, ''the crossroads of the world,'' on a day when Jacqueline Kennedy, Cardinal Spellman, Bob Hope and President Johnson were all at that intersection hailing cabs. Bananas explains that she gave the celebrities a lift - only to discover later that night that the disastrous results were recounted as comic anecdotes on the Johnny Carson show. Recalling her humiliation before 30 million television viewers, Bananas wonders why stars can't ''love'' fans like herself. As crushingly delivered by Miss Kurtz, the monologue is not just a surreal shaggy joke: Bananas' pathological relationship to glamorous American myths becomes grotesquely symbolic of a national psychosis.

This isn't to say there is no humor left in ''Blue Leaves.'' When those wayward nuns appear in Act II, they fly like bats into the iron window bars of the Shaughnessy living room. We meet a deaf Hollywood starlet, deliciously acted by Julie Hagerty, whose hilarious confusions include what must be the single funniest gag ever sparked by the word ''Unitarian.'' There are also Artie's many failed Tin Pan Alley songs - would-be Hoagy Carmichael ditties with titles like ''Where Is the Devil in Evelyn?'' Mr. Mahoney delivers them raspily at a piano with the not-quite-slick show-biz moves of every benighted fool who ever regarded Ted Mack's amateur hour as the pinnacle of artistic aspiration.

What makes these comic twists closer in spirit to Nathanael West than the 1960's is Mr. Guare's refusal to condescend. The playwright sees his characters sympathetically, as helpless victims of a society in which movie stars and the Pope are indistinguishable media gods, in which television is a shrine, in which assassins are glorified in headlines. In such an icon-ridden landscape, the best hope is the pathetic one stated by the brash Bunny: ''When famous people go to sleep at night,'' she wistfully posits, ''it's us they dream of.''

Bunny also claims, apropos of the Pope's visit, that ''there's miracles in the air.'' But the miracles she and the others long for are either spiritually bankrupt or unobtainable. Mr. Guare's Sunnyside denizens believe that a neighborhood boy turned filmland big shot (Christopher Walken) will bring them instant fame and fortune; they even believe that the Pope, by addressing the United Nations, can end the war in Vietnam. Such starry-eyed fantasies do little but drive everyone bananas. The blue spotlight of stardom craved by the songwriting Artie may be as much of a nuthouse as the blue-leaf-shaded asylum where he would dispose of his wife. When the Shaughnessys' son (Ben Stiller) auditions for the role of Huckleberry Finn in a Hollywood movie, his various stunts (all learned from the Ed Sullivan show) are pointedly mistaken for the behavior of a ''mental defective.''

Mr. Zaks's direction always illuminates that frontier where Mr. Guare's absurdism blazes into nightmare. The care extends to the production design: Ann Roth's tacky 60's costumes are at once satirical and sadly shabby, while Tony Walton's set (apocalyptically lighted by Paul Gallo) is a Stuart Davis-like collage in which the Shaughnessys' vulgar domestic squalor is hemmed in by the urbanscape's oppressive brand-name signs. With the exception of Mr. Walken's cliched cameo appearance, the acting is of high quality throughout. Mr. Mahoney, last seen as the mysterious mobster in ''Orphans,'' and Miss Channing are exceptionally impressive as they find decency and humor in the often clownish and cruel Artie and Bunny.

Still, it's Miss Kurtz whom audiences will be talking about for the rest of the season, and then some. By evening's end, Bananas has actually become one of her husband's animals. Bananas likes animals, she has explained, because they're not famous and because they represent to her the buried feelings that her fit-regulating pills usually restrain. Miss Kurtz's metamorphosis brings the theater to a shocked hush. Her slender hands become paws dancing in the air, her voice trails off into a maimed puppy's whimper. As Bananas nuzzles helplessly against her husband, Mr. Guare's inspired image of the all-American loser acquires a metaphorical force as timeless as West's locusts. Where once there was a woman with stars in her eyes, we see a battered mutt, the forgotten underdog that the bright lights of our national fairy tales always pass by.

New York Times

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