The prologue to The House of Blue Leaves–John Guare’s breakthrough play, a depressing, surrealist comedy that premiered Off Broadway in 1971–tells you everything you need to know about Artie Shaughnessy, its unheroic hero. He’s performing at an amateur night, sitting at a piano and playing the would-be-Tin Pan Alley ditties he’s written, between songs desperately pleading for bar patrons to stop talking and pay attention, for the spotlight he was promised. He’s a loser, ignored and ignorable, and he knows it. But, even so, he’s up there performing: He’s got dreams of fame.
It’s a beautifully constructed moment in director David Cromer’s star-packed revival, which opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre Monday night: Artie is alone at the foot of the stage, his back to the audience as he looks upstage into flood lights, uninterested and unseen voices continuing their conversations despite his nebbishy pleas.
But just as it’s a moment apart from the rest of the story–the only one not set in Shaughnessy’s ratty and cluttered apartment in Sunnyside, Queens–it’s also a moment apart from the rest of the production, perhaps the only understated and clarifying scene in an otherwise frenetic and scattered evening. (Scott Pask’s set, a sliced-open diorama of that apartment, with the textured night sky looming overhead, is gorgeous.)
It’s 1965, the day Pope Paul VI came to New York. Artie (Ben Stiller, nicely weak and subdued but always with an edge of stifled rage, not the defeated gentleness the script describes) is juggling plans to commit his wife, Bananas (Edie Falco, subtle and sensational), who has gone bananas, to a mental hospital on Long Island–the blue-leafed spread of the title–with pressure from his bossy mistress, Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh, energetic and something of a caricature), to marry her and move to California. His son, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott, vacant-eyed and intense), is at home, too, AWOL from Fort Dix and planning to murder the pontiff. They’re all–except Bananas, in her own way the sanest of the bunch–desperate for fame and attention.
So are the trio of bossy nuns who show up in Act II; so is the Shaughnessys’ hero, Billy Einhorn (a nicely slimy Thomas Sadoski), a neighborhood pal turned Hollywood director; so is Billy’s ingénue girlfriend (Alison Pill, blond, beatific and bland), a spectral presence in white fur who’s doesn’t want anyone to know she’s gone deaf. Everyone is hoping for a miracle, whether from Hollywood or the Vatican.
Reviewing a 1986 revival at Lincoln Center–which would go on to win four Tony Awards–Frank Rich wrote in The Times of his surprise in not finding Blue Leaves a “musty, archetypal artifact of late 1960’s black comedy,” saying that it had instead gained “weight and gravity.” And I suppose that even three years after Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and eight into the papacy of John Paul II, the idea that Americans worship attention the way they once worshiped gods, and the idea that the pope is just another pop-culture figure–“I’ll be too big for any of you,” Ronnie says as he finishes building his ecclesiastical explosive–could seem fresh and a touch surreal.
Yet in 2011, after Real Worlds and Real Housewives, after three decades of media-star pontiffs, Blue Leaves feels very much like an artifact of the late 1960s. At a time when some of its key surrealism is commonplace, Blue Leaves‘ other antic bits of wackiness–a fatal bombing played for laughs; hearing aids confused for pills–are still funny but land less effectively. The farcical elements don’t build up the comedy of ridiculous premises; they instead rub awkwardly against the entirely reasonable.
But then, of course, this condemnation of celebrity culture feels a little incoherent on today’s Broadway. So what? It’ll sell tickets: It’s got Ben Stiller! Edie Falco! Jennifer Jason Leigh!