This review first appeared on Capital New York.
In John Guare’s preface to the Plume edition of his play The House of Blue Leaves, he starts with the following anecdote:
In 1904, William Dean Howells wrote to Mark Twain: ‘You always bewilder by your veracity and I fancy you may tell the truth about yourself. But all of it? The Black Truth which we all know of ourselves, in our hearts, not only the whitey brown of the pericardium or the nice whitened truth of the shirt front? Even you won’t tell the Black heart’s-truth.’ In what tone of voice did he deliver the last phrase to his friend? Accusingly? Threateningly?
Tone is key to John Guare’s weird and wonderful plays, so it is no surprise he would wonder about the tone in Howells’ letter. Guare’s plays are alternately shattering and hilarious. If you soft-pedal one to highlight the other you are not doing John Guare. His plays can be broad and slapstick, but the despair and the expression of a “black heart’s-truth” is what make them successful.
The current revival of House of Blue Leaves, playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, directed by David Cromer, and starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco, suffers from a problem of tone. The darkness is there in the revival, and so is the slapstick, but there is a gap between the two, an abyss, really. The second act feels like it is from a different play from the first, and this is certainly a challenge. It is THE challenge.
House of Blue Leaves first opened on Broadway in 1971. It ran for ten months and then the theatre burned down, an absurdist tragic event straight out of a John Guare play. 10 years later, the Berkshire Theatre Festival began its summer run of House of Blue Leaves. John Guare, in the same preface, describes a moment from around that time:
I leave a Dramatists Guild meeting and round the corner onto Times Square to walk home, and see on the Times Tower, flashing in lights above the Crossroads of the World, the Show Biz Capital of the Universe, the fluorescent neon light bulb wattage blinking at high noon: POPE SHOT. I stop. I count the letters. Again it flashes. Eight little letters – a dopey song runs through my head: ‘Eight little letters that simply mean – what will this do to my play???’ Writers are all heart.
House of Blue Leaves takes place on October 4, 1965 during Pope Paul VI’s famed visit to New York City, to make a speech at the United Nations, give a sermon, and call for peace in Vietnam. A struggling songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy works in a zoo and has big dreams of glory and fame. He sings at open-mike nights, takes care of his schizophrenic wife Bananas, and is involved with a hot babe named Bunny he met at the health club. Artie wants out of the drudgery of taking care of Bananas, and Bunny is that “out”. Meanwhile, the Pope is in town and the mania surrounding the visit infiltrates through the dingy walls of Artie’s Queens apartment. Artie and Bananas’ son Ronnie is in the military, and has has gone AWOL. He shows up at their apartment and calmly states in one of the many to-the-audience monologues in House of Blue Leaves that he is going to blow up the Pope’s motorcade.
You can see why John Guare panicked that day in Times Square when he heard the news.
House of Blue Leaves opened again on Broadway in April 1986, directed by Gregory Mosher, with John Mahoney as Artie, Stockard Channing as Bunny, Swoosie Kurtz as Bananas, and a young Ben Stiller as Ronnie (it was Stiller’s Broadway debut).
I saw the production in 1986, and I saw the revival last week.
I was in college when I saw House of Blue Leaves. By the time I saw it, Christine Baranski had taken over the role of Bunny. The entire production blew me away. The play was dark and sadistic, hilarious and manic, it broke your heart, and made you laugh. The laughter was the uncomfortable kind, of acute recognition, especially in John Mahoney’s performance as Artie. Mahoney played at a white-hot pitch of pathetic desperation, so blatant it was hard to watch at times. And Ben Stiller as Ronnie, who only has one scene, almost walked away with the whole thing. He comes into the apartment when no one else is on stage, and delivers a long monologue to the audience about meeting Billy Einhorn, the local kid who became a hot-shot Hollywood director. Ronnie thought he was the perfect person to play Huckleberry Finn in Einhorn’s planned movie, so he came out of his room to meet Einhorn, and immediately started dancing and jumping and leaping, to show his stuff.
25 years later, I still remember Stiller in this scene, I remember the blocking, I remember his Donald O’Connor leaps off the walls, tumbling over the couch, as he relived this mortifying moment from his childhood. The feeling in the theater was electric. The monologue is hysterical, but it ends on a tragic note, and Stiller played the audience like a violin. I will never forget it. My companion that night, who ran an acting school, murmuring to me after he finished his monologue, “That kid’s gonna be a star.”
In the latest revival, Ben Stiller now plays Artie, and he seems lost. Stiller has made a career out of playing slightly pathetic guys, with undercurrents of antisocial rage. This seems like it would be a slamdunk for Artie, but Stiller uses a gruff voice not at all his own, a strange choice that keeps him at a distance from the character’s reality. Artie is a loser. He writes terrible songs and is two-timing his schizophrenic wife (Edie Falco) with a woman pushing him to get a divorce PRONTO (Jennifer Jason Leigh) so they can move to Hollywood, look up Billy Einhorn, and demand that Artie be put on retainer for one of Einhorn’s productions. But we’ve heard Artie’s songs. They stink. We already know his dreams won’t lead anywhere. But Artie needs to believe. Something about Ben Stiller’s performance made me think he doesn’t believe in Artie’s dreams, he too thinks Artie is pathetic.
I felt the audience resisting Stiller in the part. They laughed at everything he said, whether it was funny or not. The laughs were insistent, almost trying to push him the way they wanted him to go. In the final harrowing moment, when it became clear what Artie was doing, a couple of people around me gasped. This is a good response, obviously, and appropriate, but based on all that had come before, the audience turned on the play. They were expecting a Ben Stiller laugh-riot, and instead they were given this? The play is so hilarious that the ending, which any sane person could see coming from a mile away, hurts. Good. It should hurt.
Tragedy requires a catharsis. The circumstances have to transcend, we out there in the dark shiver from “pity and terror”. Arthur Miller wrote about the opening of Death of a Salesman that when the curtain fell, there was no applause. The audience was stunned into silence. When lights came up, throughout the theatre middle-aged men sat in their seats, weeping. That is a catharsis.
More than anything else, House of Blue Leaves is about fame: how even those on the periphery feel the desire to participate, even if it just means getting a good spot where you can wave to the Pope as he goes by in his motorcade. Perhaps getting close to a celebrity means some of the magic will rub off on you. Bunny says to Artie at one point: “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. You’re the dream. I’m the dream. We have to be there for the Pope’s dream.” Bananas crawls across the floor barking like a dog, trying to get the affection of her husband, saying, “I like being animals. You know why? I never heard of a famous animal. Oh, a couple of Lassies – an occasional Trigger – but, by and large, animals weren’t meant to be famous.”
There are those who see celebrities as targets, powerful symbols who need to be taken down a peg, so the culture can experience a bloodletting. We see this every day, especially in our 24/hour news cycle, with the gleeful reporting of Britney Spears’ mental breakdown, or Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles. Celebrities represent all we desire, and they engender vicious resentment. John Hinckley shot President Reagan not for any political reason, but to get the attention of a movie actress. Fame is even more desired now than it was in the 1970s, when House of Blue Leaves first opened, and unlike then, unless you were a serial killer or a political assassin, people now want to become famous without having done anything to deserve it or earn it. At least Artie wants to be famous for his songs, as terrible as they are. He understands you have to create something in order to be famous. The Pope may be hated by some, but he has actually done something to deserve the accolades.
This brings me to another point. The Catholic elephant in the room. John Guare expressed fear that people would turn on his play in the early ’80s because of the attempted assassination of the Pope. The Pope-love in House of Blue Leaves is unabashed and innocent. Three wayward nuns get pushed off the sidewalk and break into Artie’s apartment to hijack his television so they can watch the coverage. These nuns in full habit are comic relief, raiding the fridge, shushing everyone in the room (the actual inhabitants of the apartment) so they can go gaga over the Pope in peace.
Catholics have always had to deal with prejudice, and now, after almost a decade of revelations about sexual abuse endorsed and covered up by the Church, Catholic animosity is at an all-time high. Mention you are Catholic and immediately you are asked about the sexual abuse. This is understandable and should not be resented. We are in the middle of a great reckoning and Catholics have to face it. To have an entire play centered on the Pope without one pedophile joke, or one gay priest joke, also seemed jarring to the audience.
John Guare was writing about a certain time in Catholic history, following the revolutionary upheavals of Vatican II, which changed the entire world for Catholics. It was part of the social revolution in the world at large, boundaries breaking down, barriers falling away. It’s no coincidence Vatican II took place in the 1960s. The Pope’s visit to New York was a groundbreaking moment for Catholics to be proud of their faith, and proud of the leader of their faith. House of Blue Leaves presents this in an uncomplicated manner, as part and parcel of the feeling of that particular time, which, more than anything else, makes it feel like a period piece, in light of the anger about the Catholic Church today. While Guare makes a larger point about celebrity, by looping the Pope in with movie stars and rock stars (Bunny wears a huge button on her coat that says I LOVE PAUL, a leftover from the Beatles’ visit to New York, but she figures it will serve the same purpose for the “Paul” currently visiting New York), there is no underlying anger in the play about the organization in and of itself.
Despite the overall malaise of the production, besides the beautiful set design by Scott Pask, which, with its grimy apartment overshadowed by a crumply fabric sky, captures the dual tone of Guare’s play (the dark and the hopeful), there is one reason to see it, and that is Edie Falco’s performance as Bananas Shaughnessy. I had heard stories about Falco’s power in live performances, but I had never seen her in a play before.
As Bananas, the housebound schizophrenic wife, she is luminous and tragic. From 1999 to 2007, Falco became a household name with her portrayal of Carmela Soprano, the wife of the Mob boss in the culture-shifting HBO series The Sopranos. With her perfect hair and perfect outfits, Falco as Carmela often vibrated a deep howl of pain and betrayal, a woman who built her entire life on self-deception. It was a tour de force. Here, as Bananas, she wears a ratty nightgown and sloppy socks, and her emotions spark and fray. You cannot look away from her, even when she sits in a corner in a catatonic state as all hell breaks loose around her. Her emotions seem to be on the outside of her skin.
If you want to discover the right tone for John Guare’s difficult play, then just watch the miraculous Edie Falco at any given moment. It’s all there in her.