The first hit of the new year has just arrived: It's
Shattered Globe Theatre's revival of "The House of Blue Leaves,"
the tragicomic farce that first put John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation")
on the map in 1970, and later catapulted actor John Mahoney into the big
time when he starred in a remount at Lincoln Center.
Though I've seen this play many times, I never quite understood what all
the fuss was about, even if its setting -- a Queens apartment on Oct.
4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City and made his plea
for peace as the Vietnam War raged -- could hardly have been closer to
my childhood home and history. But director Ann Filmer's blistering production
-- cast to perfection, and bruising in its roller-coaster ride from the
comically manic to the sadistically pitch black -- is revelatory. And
the play's themes, whether the obsession with celebrity culture or the
terrorist impulse, seem chillingly timely.
Other essential themes are evergreen: the terrible ache of lives that
never live up to their owners' best fantasies (especially if they are
show-biz-ridden), the homicidal resentment that can accompany disappointment,
the ache of marriages that cannot live yet also cannot die, the tension
between true love and opportunism. A program note states Guare wrote the
play as a kind of twisted wedding of Strindberg's "Dance of Death"
and Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear." It might just as easily be
described as "A Streetcar Named Desire" meets "Who's Afraid
of Virginia Woolf?," with a bit of Brechtian cabaret for spice.
At the center of the chaos is Artie Shaughnessy (Doug McDade), a Central
Park zookeeper whose Queens apartment qualifies as a first-class human
zoo. Artie tends animals by day, but he is a Tin Pan Alley-style songwriter
dreaming of Hollywood fame by night -- a man who enters amateur contests
in local bars and ends up paying for his own beers. His deeply depressed
wife, Bananas (Linda Reiter), has attempted suicide at least once, while
his hyperactive, upwardly mobile neighbor and girlfriend Bunny Flingus
(Eileen Niccolai) is hellbent on engineering his success. She also dangles
the promise of home cooking in front of him whenever he seems to waver
on the divorce front.
When the pope's motorcade -- from the airport in Queens to the United
Nations in Manhattan --passes through Artie's neighborhood, it unleashes
a kind of mass hysteria in all the characters, including Shaughnessy's
psychotic, AWOL son Ronnie (Kevin Viol) and a ferocious gaggle of nuns
(Ann James, Gwynn Valentine Fulcher and the altogether adorable Heather
Graff). It also drives Artie to make a much-delayed phone call to his
childhood pal, the hugely successful movie director Billy Einhorn (Peter
DeFaria), a man whose latest amour, the ill-fated star Corrinna Stroller
(Jacquelyn Flaherty, platinum perfection), is the embodiment of the fickleness
McDade, who in recent seasons has turned in superb performances in both
"Virginia Woolf" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," is the
best Shaughnessy I've ever seen -- not only playing the piano full out,
but also nailing every aspect of his character's sweet dreaminess and
Reiter, whether barking, begging or beaming, is nothing short of sensational
as a woman for whom love might just be the best yet ever-elusive medicine.
And Niccolai, dressed in a pink Pucci print, is hilarious as a tornado
that just keeps picking up speed.
Kevin Hagen's jam-packed set (expertly lit by Shelley Strasser Holland
and spotlight man Josh Bonifas), Cybele Moon's vintage costumes and Joshua
Horvath's thunderous sound combine to heighten the story. And one final
word of praise for Filmer: This is the first time the play's poetic title
really hit home.
'THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES' HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
When: Through March 5
Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Victory Gardens Studio, 2257 N. Lincoln
Call: (773) 871-3000