Fame is elusive. Chasing it is hard; doubly so if someone is holding you back.
That theme rustles through "The House of Blue Leaves," which is back on Broadway in a revival starring Ben Stiller and Edie Falco.
The mood in John Guare's 1971 play has more swings than a playground. Its plot trips from comedy to farce to family drama to deadly tragedy.
There's never a dull moment in director David Cromer's entertaining staging, but that's not the same as being completely satisfying. A wild and crazy work cries out for extremes, and this starry production at the Walter Kerr is too tame and emotionally mellow for its own good.
The setting is 1965 in the shabby Sunnyside apartment of Artie Shaughnessy (Stiller), a small-time zookeeper. He dreams of being a big-time songwriter but is going nowhere, unlike his friend Billy (Thomas Sadoski), who is a huge hit in Hollywood.
Artie's curdling hopes hover like low-lying storm clouds — a notion ingeniously realized by set designer Scott Pask. The plot is set against the backdrop of Pope Paul VI's visit to the UN to speak out against the war in Vietnam. Everyone craves a piece of the Pope — to bask in his godliness and his celebrity.
Artie wants his songs blessed before he leaves his wife, Bananas (Falco), who just went barking mad one snowy day. He's about to start a new life in Hollywood with his downstairs neighbor and mistress Bunny (a splendidly demented Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Artie's psychotic son, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott), AWOL from the Army, wants to blow up the Pope to become famous. Forty years later, that subplot, though farcical, is dicier than ever.
Stiller, who played Ronnie in its 1986 Broadway run, gets to show talents he doesn't typically display on film. He plays piano and sings impressively while crooning his character's cornball tunes.
But Artie's zigzagging love and hatred for Bananas needs to be much deeper to make what happens between them convincing.
Falco is more successful. Not a naturally comic actress, she makes the most of every moment on stage. You can see an entire world happening behind Falco's sad but never blank eyes as Bananas sits staring.
The evening's flat-out funniest performance comes from Alison Pill, who plays a glamorous deaf starlet determined to hide her ailment.
One of the play's strengths is its unabashed cynicism. Even nuns played by Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Bennett and Halley Feiffer are just Pope-chasing groupies.
In the world of "House of Blue Leaves," as in real life, fame fascinates all, touches all and spares no one.
"The House of Blue Leaves" is a roughly stitched patchwork of styles and ideas. The first full-length effort by John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation"), the 1966 play mixes tones -- dark, comic, violent, surrealistic -- and serves up crushed dreams and wacky high jinks, Vietnam references and Hollywood jokes. For good measure, it also blows up the fourth wall.
Likewise, this new Broadway revival is all over the map. Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh are uneven in plumbing the depths of their characters' bizarre love triangle. Director David Cromer ("Our Town") also struggles with Guare's peculiar tone -- he's more at ease with the pathos than with the second act's pitch-black farce.
And yet the show's choppy unpredictability is fascinating. Cookie-cutter this isn't.
Stiller plays Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper who lives in Queens with the depressive wife he calls Bananas (Falco). Artie is planning to get Bananas institutionalized so he and his girlfriend, Bunny (Leigh), can start anew in LA.
What a sorry trio.
Artie is an aspiring songwriter who dimly realizes he's "too old to be a young talent." He met Bunny, a casually cruel know-it-all, in the gym's steam room. "I ripped off my towel and kind of raped her," Artie fondly remembers.
Meanwhile, Bananas has enough mind left to know what she's lost -- "Let me have an emotion," she pleads as Artie tries to force-feed her pills.
Leigh, an expert in high-strung characters, can be like nails on a chalkboard -- which is exactly right for Bunny. And Falco is heartbreaking when she suggests the awareness that still flickers in Bananas.
But Stiller, who can't entirely dim his natural charisma, doesn't quite convince as a sad sack caught between hope and despondency. We buy Artie's attraction to the toxic Bunny, but not the complex feelings for Bananas that make his final gesture tragic rather than merely dramatic.
Coincidentally, Stiller made his Broadway debut as Artie's son, Ronnie, in the 1986 revival. Here, Christopher Abbott doesn't register much as the unhinged soldier who wants to blow up the pope. He's the weak link in the otherwise stellar supporting cast, which includes Thomas Sadoski ("Other Desert Cities") and Alison Pill ("The Miracle Worker") playing against type, respectively, as a Hollywood director and his glamorous leading lady.
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.
What do you get when you take the “sur” out of “surrealism”? That sounds like a question in search of a punch line. But few laughs emerge from the answers provided by the somber new revival of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves,” which opened on Monday night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
As directed by David Cromer — and enacted by a talent-stuffed cast that includes Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and the remarkable Edie Falco — this production zooms in on every gritty grain of pain to be found in Mr. Guare’s breakthrough work from 1966. The play’s more anarchic elements (like an invasion of grabby nuns in the second act) are all in place, and its bravely lush and lyrical soliloquies are still pitched directly to the audience.
But, except when it’s spoken by Ms. Falco — who gives a transfixing performance as a medicated madwoman longing to feel — there’s little that’s transporting here in Mr. Guare’s wild, yearning language. Mr. Cromer has rebuilt his “House” in the style of kitchen-sink dramas, the kind in which unhappy families simmer in squalor and explode with a whimper. First staged in New York in 1971 (with a cast that included Mr. Stiller’s mother, Anne Meara), “House” is usually described as a black comedy. Mr. Cromer’s version plunges headfirst into the blackness, leaving the comedy to sink or swim.
Mostly, I’m afraid, it sinks. The in-demand Mr. Cromer made his name as a director by emphasizing the hard prose in playwrights known for their poetic sensibilities (Tennessee Williams, William Inge) and the sadness within the situations of sitcoms (the short-lived Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”). His approach can pay off beautifully, as it did in the long-running Off Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
But “The House of Blue Leaves” — the story of a miserably married zookeeper who dreams of being a Hollywood songwriter — demands a careful balance of fact and fantasy to work its full, exotic magic. That balance was stirringly achieved 25 years ago in Jerry Zaks’s Tony-winning production for Lincoln Center, which featured John Mahoney, Stockard Channing, Swoosie Kurtz and, in his Broadway debut, Mr. Stiller. Lively, funny and ultimately shattering, that revival brought out the substance and clarity in Mr. Guare’s singular, gracefully skewed vision of desperate lives in the mid-20th century.
Mr. Guare presciently captured, with aching empathy and brusque insight, an American obsession with celebrity that has since only grown and festered. Set in a Queens apartment in 1965, “House” takes place on the day the pope arrives in New York City. The frenzy and anticipation surrounding his visit allow Mr. Guare to riff on the hopes we pin on the distant lives of awe-inspiring eminences, whether they hail from the Vatican or Hollywood.
Listen to these peerless words from early in the first act: “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 theory is put forth, with brow-furrowing earnestness, by Bunny Flingus (Ms. Leigh), the mistress of Artie Shaughnessy (Mr. Stiller). And though Artie responds dismissively, he knows what Bunny means.
Artie doesn’t want to believe that his current existence — as a zoo employee married to a schizophrenic shut-in named Bananas (Ms. Falco) — is his destiny. He writes songs spontaneously, all the time. And Bunny, whom he met in a steam bath a couple of months before, believes he has the talent to step into that greater, truer reality inhabited by the rich and famous. (“Rich and Famous,” for the record, is the title of another play by Mr. Guare.)
So maybe, just maybe, Artie will be delivered from his albatross of a life (and wife) by a transformative benediction from the pope. Or if not from him, then from Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski), Artie’s childhood friend, now a big-time movie director engaged to a glamorous actress (Alison Pill). In the meantime Artie’s sullen, recently drafted son, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott, in the part played in 1986 by Mr. Stiller), has his own plans for becoming famous.
We know, of course, that Artie dreams in vain. We can hear from his songs that the guy’s got no talent. And Mr. Stiller (who established himself as a virtuoso in portraying bitter disappointment in the recent film “Greenberg”) has an air of angry resignation that tells us he’s going nowhere, despite an occasional eager spring in his step. Even the cheerleading, life-affirming Bunny, as embodied by Ms. Leigh in an emotionally pinched and vocally strained performance, behaves as if Artie were already down for the count.
An air of no-exit claustrophobia saturates every detail. You feel it in the oppressive, crumpled-sheet-like sky that seems poised to smother Artie and Bananas in their shabby apartment (painstakingly imagined by Scott Pask). You expect the wan, jaundice-colored lighting (by Brian MacDevitt) to be absorbed at any moment by the shadows. Even the flamboyant, off-the-rack ’60s fashions sported by Bunny (and designed by Jane Greenwood) seem less amusing than pathetic.
So where do you go if your starting point is a dead end? This isn’t a problem that Mr. Cromer solves. For “House” to captivate, its lyricism has to be given fuller rein. Here, even when characters step downstage into spotlights to confide in us, the audience, the effect is of drained, joyless souls speaking to people like themselves; there’s no buoyancy to work against or come down from.
A slight surge of energy arrives when those madcap, camera-wielding nuns (played by Mary Beth Hurt, Halley Feiffer and Susan Bennett) show up. But soon they too are sucked into the prevailing grayness. So are Ms. Pill and Mr. Sadoski (stars of the original cast of Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty”), though they throw in a few tasty comic flourishes.
Within the dimness, there is one luminous force. And that is Ms. Falco, whose varied, nuanced acting has long been familiar to television viewers in shows that include “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie.” Clad in a worn nightgown and tatty cardigan, her face as open as a new wound, Ms. Falco endows the anguished Bananas with such unvarnished emotional transparency — and clinical exactness — that it hurts to look at her.
But look you do. When the world is as dark as it is in this “House,” your eyes naturally seek the light, whatever its source.