The House of Blue Leaves
nytheatre.com review by Leslie Bramm
April 26, 2011
The House of Blue Leaves is an American play. “I’m too old to be a young talent” is not only protagonist Artie Shaughnessy’s mantra, it's his battle cry. Artie needs to salvage what’s left of his life. He’s 45 years old, and he still isn’t “somebody” yet. John Guare wrote The House of Blue Leaves in the late 1960s. Now a period piece of sorts, what must have seemed like the theatrical exaggeration of one man’s personal ambition back then has become the norm now. Like current American culture, Artie needs to be famous. Like current American culture, Artie’s hunger has no boundaries.
Guare takes us into this man’s mind. His tiny battles are symbols for a nation that’s encouraged this obsession out of control. Many native cultures believe that the camera steals a bit of your soul. In present-day America you don’t have a soul until you’ve been on camera. Like America, Artie wants it, and like America he’s going to get it at all costs.
The story is set in Sunnyside, Queens, on a frigid October 4th, 1965, the day the Pope is coming to New York to speak out against the Vietnam war. Artie Shaughnessy is a struggling song writer. His dream is to compose scores for Hollywood. The play opens with him playing an amateur night at the El Dorado bar in Queens. This gig is anything but golden. No blue spotlight for his ballad. No one’s listening. He even has to buy his own beer. Like America, Artie keeps plugging away. Doing his best. Placing all his stock in the idea that a dream really can come true. Even though it’s quickly slipping away and he can feel it.
Artie’s home life is a zoo. His shoddy top-floor apartment is strewn with years of his failed attempts. His wife, Bananas, is mentally ill and depressed. His son, Ronnie, has gone AWOL from the Army. His girlfriend, Bunny, antagonizes his ambition and stokes his fear. No matter which way he turns, Artie can’t avoid the bubbles bursting all around him.
Committing his wife to a mental hospital and moving to Hollywood with Bunny is the plan. Artie’s best friend is a famous movie director named Billy Einhorn. Once in Hollywood he’s confident Billy will discover his musical genius, and his future will be set. Like America's, Artie’s confidence is an illusion and verges on arrogance.
Guare deconstructs Artie’s obsession and foils his attempts at every turn—not only chipping away at his self-delusion, but exposing the raw nerve of humiliation. For on another more human level, this play is about humiliation. How much one man can bear, and what that one man will do when there’s nothing else left to do. Like America, when he doesn’t get what he wants, Artie lashes out.
I had no expectations for David Cromer’s direction. I didn’t go in expecting to see the play redefined, or made more hip. Cromer does the work you expect a good director to do, when dealing with complex characters and farcical situations. He keeps the action moving along. He seems to focus much of the tone on the dark aspects of the play, allowing the humor to emerge of itself. Which makes sense. The play is a tragedy, and Artie’s mind is gloomy and haunted.
The play boasts three well-known “stars” in Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Edie Falco. A way to use real celebrity to symbolize Artie’s ambition? All three have what Artie wants in real life. This in tandem with the direct audience address pulls us deeper into the story and makes us not only an accomplice in Artie’s quest, but a reminder of what he fails to achieve.
Ben Stiller as Artie has the range you need for the stage. He plays him with a building sense of pathos and despair. Stiller’s intensity builds even more in the second act as he’s driven to an emotional inevitability. Stiller is real and it’s often painful to watch. There is very little that’s likeable about the character of Artie Shaughnessy. Stiller goes to the dark side, and we see a side of the actor we’re not used to seeing.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, a fine actor in her own right, stumbles with Bunny’s dialog and doesn’t seem to have the strength in her voice to give weight to the longer speeches. She seems strained and pushing. As one of the more comical characters on stage, Leigh does have an excellent sense of timing for the humor. I just wished I could hear her more clearly.
Thomas Sadoski’s Billy Einhorn is one of my favorite performances. Sadoski balances just enough Hollywood arrogance with a feeling of heartfelt grief. Einhorn’s final lesson for Artie is the knockout punch: “Anybody can create, but to be an audience…” Sadoski plays it like a personal revelation with no malice toward his friend, and it works beautifully.
Ronnie Shaughnessy is the gun that’s slipped into the drawer in Act One, only to emerge again in the second act. Christopher Abbott delivers Ronnie’s difficult and gut-wrenching speech, deftly hitting all the right notes.
Halley Feiffer is delightful as one of the nuns who has taken refuge in Artie's house to catch a glimpse of the Pope. She takes her moments and commands them. Her final scene on stage has her standing toe to toe with some fine actors, and she more than holds her own.
But, the show belongs to Edie Falco. Her portrayal of Bananas is one of the finest pieces of stage acting I’ve seen in awhile. Falco inhabits the many personas that Bananas seeks emotional refuge in. She just needs to be loved and Falco’s nails this right to the heart. Even when she’s sitting silently. Falco is engaged and engaging. She has a mobile face that glows with a plethora of emotions. Edie Falco is a gift to New York theatre and luckily for us, she seems to walk the boards on a regular basis.
Sets, costumes, and lighting by Scott Pask, Jane Greenwood, and Brian MacDevitt are exactly the quality you expect to see in a Broadway play. They feed Artie’s sense of being trapped in a life he can’t break out of.
The House of Blue Leaves, with its themes of fame, desire, and religion, carries a political and social weight that is as valid today (if not more so) as it was when it was originally written. Its humanity and its humor, its basic call to love and compassion, and its ability to turn this man inside out, all resonate. Like the greatest of American plays, The House of Blue Leaves speaks a truth about the culture we live in and probably will for generations to come.