Artie Shaughnessy, desperately aspiring singer/songwriter from Queens, NY, has a lot on his hands. His teenage son Ronnie has been sent to fight in the Vietnam War; his wife is mentally ill (as her name, Bananas, would suggest); his mistress, Bunny, is nagging him; and the Pope is riding through his neighborhood on his way to the U.N.
On Friday night, The Village Playhouse and Repertory Co. opened John Guare's much-produced 1971 tragicomedy The House of Blue Leaves. While its setting may be in the past (1965, to be exact), its themes are everlasting. Director Keely Enright and company have developed a rather tight, smart, and poignant production.
In the surface story, Bunny is pressuring Artie to wave his songs in front of the Pope to be blessed. She's also pressuring him to leave his life in Queens behind, take her to California, and find fame with the help of his childhood friend turned Hollywood producer Billy Einhorn.
George Younts turns in a wonderful performance as Artie, who appears downtrodden even in the first upbeat moments of the play. Younts so skillfully handles Artie's declining stability, in spite of his desperate attempts to maintain it, that his meltdown is heartbreaking to watch.
Beth Curley as Bunny is likewise excellent, never breaking her ridiculous character of a convincing, goofy harpy who always wants the best for those she loves — mostly herself.
Susie Hallatt portrays Bananas with a sad, endearing warmth that's lovely to watch. Her character's desire to be able to feel without having pills shoved down her throat is tragic.
Ronnie has one big monologue in which he tells his story to the audience. While Blake Alford is very funny, natural, and likeable in this role, the deeper point of his story gets lost in his exaggerated mannerisms.
As Billy Einhorn, the figure on whom a lot of dreams rest, Phil Sykes shows the right amount of Hollywood phoniness. And Courtney Connor is funny and expressive as Corinna, Billy's girlfriend with a surprising problem that's the embodiment of fate (or bad luck, or whatever one wants to call it).
There's a gaggle of nuns (Anne Von Kolnitz, Ashley Errico, and Lora Jacobs) thrown into the mix, providing a farcical element to the play; however, their presence on and off the stage is sometimes overwhelming — loud and distracting, even in spite of the functions they're serving.
Aside from the nuns' occasional mania, Enright has devised excellent, smooth staging. She handles the numerous asides well, and the interactions between Artie and Bunny in the first scene are so natural they don't appear staged at all. There's a lot of action to cram onto the stage as the play goes into its second half; while Enright pays attention to the silliness, she doesn't forget the seriousness either.
Enright also designed the appropriately dismal Queens apartment. Julie Ziff's set decoration and costumes lend just the right atmosphere to the play, not only in how things really were, but maybe in how things were perceived as well.
With all the silliness involved in the play, it's easy to see why some might be confused as to Blue Leaves' dark ending. But the play has a dark undercurrent throughout it. The humor is there, and the actors in this cast serve it magnificently. But the sad truths of life are what permeate this play. Artie's dreams of success have failed in mammoth proportions (reduced to buying his own beer at the club he played, where he didn't get the allotted time or the spotlight he asked for). Artie and Bananas both have literal dreams, too — dreams that take them into strange worlds involving presidents and Popes and their own versions of feeling special or unimportant. Poor Bananas misses her son who's been sent off to fight, and she copes in the only way she can, while her husband displays his relationship with his mistress in front of her. On top of that, she loves animals so much that she acts like a dog. Bananas needs love, as Billy says — and she lost her chance at that. Reflected in Bananas' personal madness is the group madness that the rest of the characters get caught up in.
The obsession with celebrity and the quest for fame hangs in the air, too. It's no coincidence that Bunny wears a leftover Beatles "I love Paul" button for the Pope's visit. No one wants to go unrecognized in their lives; everyone wants to feel unique — and beyond unique, well known. No one wants to feel like a number unless it's 1.
The House of Blue Leaves has revenge, grudges, fate, hope and disappointment, aging, love, violence, dreams, and goals, all tied up in a not-so-pretty package of wry and sometimes silly humor — a gift wrapped not in shiny, glossy paper and a bow but in dirty butcher's paper.