Monday, June 11, 2012

Theatre review: "The House of Blue Leaves" from The Summer Company-Broadcast on the 10th of June 2012

The Summer Company at Duquesne University has put together a production of John Guare’s famed, seemingly surrealistic black comedy The House of Blue Leaves. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1971 and four Tony Awards for its 1986 revival at Lincoln Center Theater. Since 1966* it has been seen on and off-Broadway several times featuring such stars as Anne Meara, Swoosie Kurtz, Stockard Channing, Dannie Aiello, Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Clearly it offers a lot to attract such talent and to attract audiences.

On the surface it comes loaded with bizarre situations and developments setting up a potential for laughs and for pathos, depending on how it’s played. Several very capable actors in significant roles play them well.  Duquesne University alumnus Leah Casella directed and she has kept it moving solidly, not pushing too hard, but not able enough to get across the sorrowful elements which can make the story and characters touching and believable.

This takes place in 1965 in a lower middle class neighborhood in Queens, New York where Artie Shaughnessy lives with his schizophrenic wife Bananas while he carries on an imperfectly realized affair with Bunny Flingus. Artie is a zoo-keeper who dreams of becoming a famous song-writer. He hopes that Billy Einhorn, his boyhood buddy, can help him. Billy had become a major Hollywood movie director. Artie and Bunny’s son Ronnie has been drafted to serve in Viet Nam. In the day of the story Pope Paul the 6th arrives in New York to preach peace during which time Billy and his girlfriend movie star Corrina visit Artie and Bananas. So do, accidently, several nuns. Then, away from there, Corrina and two nuns are killed in a political bombing.

Guare does not entirely aim for literal realism, even though everything that happens could actually occur. Some characters talk directly to the audience, appealing for sympathy or understanding. On opening night the actors didn’t go enough beneath the surface there or elsewhere. A problem which faces them all and director Cassella is how to play what seem like off the wall situations as if they are real.

Consequently a few performances pulled things in the wrong direction, as if  Cassella was trying for broad comedy. Most egregious, Sarah Murtha’s take on Bunny stayed an example of uncontrolled excess. She shouted her lines with readings of the words riding roughshod over meaning. Meanwhile Natalie Moretti also went overboard playing Corrina as a broad version of a bubble-head. And the performance of the nuns seemed like shtick.

On the plus side, Ron Siler-Waruszewski successfully made Artie seem like a sorrowful loser and. when called upon to deliver a poetic monologue by Guare, did it justice. As Bananas, Caitlin Northrup kept her simple, never trying too hard to seem crazy even though not coming across as pathetic. Plus Rich Eckman's take on movie director Billy Einhorn remained convincing.

Certain production elements look sloppy. The program book doesn’t list characters in order of appearance; that may cause audience confusion. And the set design should have something to imply that the kitchen is not visible from the living room, so that, when Bunny is hiding in the kitchen, Bananas can’t see her. Sure, Bananas has mental defects, but nothing like that. 

Of course, this being quasi-professional theatre, no information about the playwright is in the program book, although the assistant stage manager gets a few lines. 

John Guare is also well-known for Six Degrees of Separation which won an Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and London’s Olivier Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. He’s written 14 other plays and in 1993 was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame

*It debuted in 1966 contrary to what you what you may read in a Pittsburgh City Paper review.

The House of Blue Leaves continues through June 16th at Peter Mills Theater in Duquesne University Rockwell Hall, 600 Forbes Avenue- 412/243-5201. Reservations through the Gemini Theater Company box office. 412/243-6464

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