First staged in 1966, American playwright, John Guare’s comic play, The House of Blue Leaves is an absurdist black comedy that has since then intensified its twisted view of fame, celebrity, religion, and the American Dream.
Now playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks and directed by J. Barry Lewis, this poignant comedy won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1971. Still today, it is a popular production. When the play was written, fame was still an unattainable dream for the average American, but in this era of YouTube and Instagram, Guare’s characters don’t seem too far-fetched and the universal idea of stardom is not so quaint.
The play unfolds in New York City on the day the Pope is expected to visit. People are taking to the streets in droves in the sleepy borough of Queens, all to get a glimpse or a blessing from His Holiness. One found in the hordes of people is Bunny Flingus [Vanessa Morosco], a femme-fatale from Flushing. She is firing things up in the quiet, unfulfilled life of aspiring songwriter Artie Shaughnessy [Bruce Linser], a zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo in New York, who dreams of writing a hit song, moving to Hollywood with Bunny, and leaving his unhappy and complicated marriage behind.
While there are various recurring themes underlining this play, the main one revolves dreams and whether those dreams get realized or dashed.
The House of Blue Leaves takes place in 1965 in Sunnyside, Queens. This phenomenal ensemble is made up of a handful of primary characters, and leading it is Artie, an aspiring songwriter who is married to Bananas. The name should give the audience a clue of her severe mental health problems. Her brief moments of lucidity are scrunched by lapses of schizophrenia, and this pulls at her husband’s heartstrings. Artie is visibly torn between the decision to continue caring for his ailing wife until death separates them, and his need to escape to Hollywood, where his dream of becoming a famous songwriter can be fulfilled.
During the first few scenes of the play, one wonders if Bananas knows about Artie’s affair with Bunny, who lives in the apartment down below from them, or that the pair plan to leave her in an institution while they run away to Hollywood. Complicating matters is Artie and Bananas’ son, Ronnie [Austin Carroll], a US soldier who goes missing from his base before he’s deployed to Vietnam. Is schizophrenia inherited? That’s a notion to think about, as Ronnie shows clear signs of it in his attitude towards life at such a young age.
There are chaotic, dramatic, and simply hilarious scenes at times as Bunny does her best to get Artie out the door not only to see the Pope, but to have his songs—a pile of half-baked lyrics that mimic other hit songs—blessed and into the hands of Artie’s childhood friend and now a prominent Hollywood director, Billy Einhorn [Jim Ballard].
In a ponderous scene, a blue spotlight zeroes in on Artie, and one wonders what that light really is about. Is it the light of fame finally cascading down on Artie, a man once crushed by disappointment yet unable to abandon his dreams? Or, is the light depicting a higher source?
Like the character of Bananas, Guare’s play maintains a delicate equilibrium between madness and seriousness. All the characters seek a miraculous transformation in their lives. A woman who wants to be sane. A man who wants to be famous. A woman who yearns for the celebrity wife’s life while another wants that status back. And even a young, novice nun who wants to be free of an old religious tradition and explore a new world. In the end, what we capture are lives that are played against a black comedy curtain, which falls and closes in on them like a straight jacket.
There are many show business stories about following your dream and this play is certainly about that. But the allure of this timeless tale is that every character, in their spotlight-seeking moment, turns directly to the audience because they assume that there’s no one else on the stage but them. Brilliantly performed by a talented cast, this powerful story still leaves its audience thinking, 53 years after its premiere.
The House of Blue Leaves is playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks [PBDW] until June 2. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.com or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis St, West Palm Beach.