While many if not all of the characters in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” ought to have their heads examined, this is not a prerequisite for those who choose to come to the Walter Kerr Theater to witness the chaos and absurdities that abound in what many consider, with the possible exception of “Six Degrees of Separation,” Guare’s best play. Judging from the laughter that resounded throughout the theater during the preview that I attended, the men in the white suits (do they still wear those?) would be well advised to keep a few spaces open in the padded wagon for some unscheduled occupants.
This comical tragedy has earned its fair share of detractors as it has also gained admirers since it first opened in 1971. That bodes well for any play that is good enough to encourage discussion, maybe an argument, maybe even a violent response. Not everyone can handle humor when it cascades like salt over open wounds. The title of the play refers to a home for the mentally unsound where it appears one of the play’s pivotal characters seems soon to be headed.
One would not ordinarily expect that the visit to New York by Pope Paul VI on a day in 1965 would act as a catalyst for Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller), an admirable zookeeper but also an aspiring but abysmal songwriter, to dispatch or rather commit to an institution, his schizophrenic wife, aptly named Bananas (a heartbreaking performance by Edie Falco). This, so he may run off to Hollywood with Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an ingratiatingly stupid seductress who, although she lives in the downstairs apartment, seems to have carte blanche visitation rights upstairs.
The Sunnyside, Queens, New York City apartment (designed by Scott Pask to reflect its occupants less than decorative priorities) is full of visitations. Artie, a musical hack whose best tune sounds amazingly like “White Christmas,” maneuvers a visit from Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski), a former school chum now a famous Hollywood director.
Then there is the invasion by the Shaughnessey’s son, Ronnie (a terrific Christopher Abbott), a time-bomb wielding AWOL G.I.; a trio of beer chug-a-lugging nuns (Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Bennett, and Halley Feiffer), and Corrinna Stroller (Alison Pill), a glamorous but stone deaf movie star.
A modern day Ophelia, Bananas’ state of incontestable mental deterioration reaches many peaks (“I tried to slash my wrists with spoons”), like frying up four Brillo pads and eating the batteries of a hearing aid for openers. As the pathetically misguided Artie, Stiller, who is returning to the New York stage for the first time since making his debut in the role of Ronnie in this play when it opened Off Broadway in 1996 has full command of his comically poignant character’s misguided hopes. He has a poor soul’s field day tinkling the ivories with his own inimitable brand of self-delusional incompetence. Only the deaf ears of Stroller deserve the likes of Artie’s arguably most hilariously awful composition “Where’s the Devil in Evelyn.”
Aside from the Pope’s blessing, the real miracle is the comically accented insensitivity of Bunny who, although she admits to scoring only 12 on a Reader’s Digest sex test, balances the darker motif that must ultimately and tragically wash over us. As Bunny, Leigh, who has a real instinct for off-kilter comedy, radiates a ditsy (“I wanna cook for you so bad”) sexuality and gives a gloriously off-handed reading of many of her lines such as (referring to the Pope’s visit) “I haven’t seen anything this big since the premiere of ‘ Cleopatra.’”
In this play, Guare seems to take an immense and calculated pleasure in making us laugh at the most macabre even horrifying incidents and during the most devastatingly emotional moments. Of course, there is a measure of disbelief that will accompany you as you exit the theater. But why quibble when the characters that Guare created are living their lives in such irretrievably and unapologetically bold relief.
In this the 40th anniversary of Guare’s play, it may be time to give full credit and appreciation for the kind of gallows-humored play that was once labeled “black” during the 1960s and 1970s and that peaked with this play in 1971. If Guare’s play seems today a little quaint in the light of more recent dramatic perspectives on the absurd side of life, it remains enormously entertaining as an archetypal museum of cultural types — people in the prime of their paranoia.
Happily, director David Cromer (who directed the lauded Off-Broadway production of “Our Town”) is just the level-headed guide needed to lead this fine company of actors through a maze that is as loony as it is lacerating. The only catch is that there appears to be no way out for this collection of the desperate, despairing, and disillusioned. The trick for you is to find your way in. ***
“The House of Blue Leaves,” Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street. $57 to $132. 212-239-6200.