The House of Blue Leaves, the 1971 black comedy by American playwright John Guare, with its somewhat warped view of fame, celebrity, religion, and the dark underbelly of the American Dream, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage this past Friday evening. Directed by Judith A. David, The House of Blue Leaves stars Zachary Jackson, Matthew Ford, Danielle Finlay, Pam Huxtable, Meg Barton, Colleen Boyle, Susie Moak, MacKenzie Warrick, Michael D. Peco, Matthew Brown, and Michelle Opalesky.
First staged in 1966 (Act I), the play is set in Sunnyside, Queens in 1965—a turbulent period in American history marked by political upheavals, challenges to the social status quo, Vietnam, assassinations, and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement—and focuses on Artie Shaughnessy (Jackson), a disillusioned zookeeper and would-be songwriter during Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York City. Artie dreams of achieving fame and fortune in Hollywood. When Blue Leaves was written, fame was more fleeting, less attainable, but in this age of YouTube, Instagram, and other social media platforms rewarding just about anyone with 15-minutes of fame (talented or otherwise), Artie’s character isn’t too implausible nor does his quest for fame seem so unattainable.
It’s painfully obvious in the first moments of the play that Artie has no talent for writing music when he tries and fails to charm an apathetic audience at amateur hour. As the play opens, Artie is abruptly wakened by Bunny Flingus (Finlay), his abrasive, self-serving girlfriend, who insists that Artie run out into the street to wave his musical compositions at His Holiness so the pontiff can bless them as the papal motorcade passes by. The plan is for Artie to have his schizophrenic wife, Bananas (Huxtable), committed to an institution that inspires the play’s title, so he and Bunny can move to California where Artie’s old neighborhood pal, famed director Billy Einhorn (Peco), can open doors for Artie. Jackson brings his usual high energy to the role which exactly matches Finlay’s incredible high energy. The chemistry between the two as they flirt and fight almost convinces you that their scheme might actually work…almost. But what it really does is generate empathy for Bananas. The back and forth banter between Jackson and Finlay is the highlight of the first act and provides comical moments.
Huxtable does a fine turn as Bananas, enduring Bunny’s attacks and Artie’s threats of commitment with a sort of quiet grace. Shabbily dressed in frumpy house clothes, Huxtable moves about the stage like a miserable ghost, longing to experience emotions that aren’t suppressed by pills that have been forced down her throat. Despite her bewildering habit of barking like a dog, she may be the most human person in the room.
Act II opens on a disturbing note. Artie and Bananas’ son, Ronnie (Ford), emerges from his hiding place to a vacated apartment and delivers a monologue that reveals his own disquieting plan for becoming famous. From there, the second act descends into farcical chaos. Billy’s girlfriend, Corrinna Stroller (Barton), turns up for a brief visit before going on to Australia. Deaf since an accident on a movie set, the former actress promptly loses her hearing aids and desperately tries to hide her disability. Barton’s comic timing is really terrific in these scenes.
A trio of eccentric (and very funny) nuns (Boyle, Moak, and Warrick), eager to see the pope, somehow end up getting trapped on the roof and join the fracas in the Shaughnessys’ apartment, climbing in through the window to watch the papal coverage on TV. The nuns don’t hang around long, but they do offer an unholy amount of zaniness. Warrick is especially good as a sweet young aspirant inspired by The Sound of Music to become a bride of Christ. She’s ultimately inspired by events to become a young divorcee. Much of Act II is noisy and chaotic with the words and actions of the characters mixing together, like multiple broadcasts all at once. Finally, Billy, ably played by Peco, shows up following an inconceivable tragedy and is the quintessential Hollywood big wig. A policeman (MP) and a nurse round out the cast in the second act played by Brown and Opalesky respectively.
David’s direction seems well-suited to this difficult material. It seems this is not her first time directing this play. Ray Barto’s set design, Brian Touchette’s lighting design, and Caitlin Adams’ sound design are all up to CSP’s exceptional standards as is costume design. Kudos to Nancy Starch, Cindy Starcher, and the cast.
As David stated in her Director’s Note, “Those searching for their place among the stars can be hilarious, scary or sad…sometimes all three at once.” The House of Blue Leaves runs through February 29th. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit http://www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.