Palm Beach Dramaworks is closing out its 18th season uncharacteristically with a comedy – John Guare’s 1971 dark farce, The House of Blue Leaves. But director J. Barry Lewis insists it is not a departure for the company.
“I believe that drama is comedy and comedy is drama. I think that they are one and the same,” he says prior to a recent rehearsal. “Comedy is an interpretation of life at its most serious sometimes.”
Most of the characters in the Obie Award-winning play want something desperately, usually fame. The central character, Artie Shaughnessy, is a zookeeper in Queens, N.Y., but he yearns to write songs in Hollywood. His grown son Ronnie once wanted to be a child movie star, but he has since adjusted his sights to the tabloid notoriety he would gain from assassinating the pope. And Artie’s mentally unstable wife Bananas has a simpler wish. She just wants Artie to stop feeding her the tranquilizers that numb her emotions.
“We now live in a society of access, an ability to have instant fame and fortune,” notes Lewis. “Who are the Kardashians and why are they famous? They’re famous because we made them famous. We dream of being them, of having that fame, of watching them succeed and fail.
“This play is about the hollowness of what stardom is. What happen when we place these individuals above everything, what happens to the rest of us?”
Whether The House of Blue Leaves is a comedy, a tragedy or something in between, it is definitely “theater to think about,” the mission statement tagline of Dramaworks.
“There are certainly dramatic moments in this show,” says Bruce Linser, who plays Artie. “The humanity, the desperation, the need of the characters, the dream of the characters, they fit very well with this company’s mission.”
“Comedy is rooted in truth. We have to find that truth to earn the laughs,” adds Lewis. “The minute you start playing for the laughs is the minute you stop getting them.”
Both Lewis and Linser were unfamiliar with the play before starting to work on it, but Elena Garcia, who plays Bananas, chose the play for her graduate thesis project at Florida Atlantic University years ago.
“And Bananas is my dream role,” she says. Why? “Her innocence. And the comedy within the tragedy. I just love the farcical, unexpected nature of the play. Because at any moment, we’re going to break the fourth wall and talk right at you.”
“It certainly isn’t traditional theater where you sit back and observe it,” Linser says. “Listen, if you come to this show and you just want to be entertained, there’s going to be plenty that does that. But if you come to be engaged and to take that next leap, there is a lot of that in there, too.”
On his first reading of the play, Linser was unsure what exactly was going on, but he knew that he connected with Artie. “It’s the humanity, it’s the desperation, it’s the dream, it’s the need to be something more, to have something more. I think all of those are universal,” he says. “I think that’s why he’s at the center of this crazy world swirling around him. He’s the Everyman, easy to identify with.
“Because we all have dreams that haven’t been realized. We all want something better, wanting something else. That’s how I relate to Artie. I think Artie has a fear of taking the bull by the horns and actually owning his life.”
Although The House of Blue Leaves speaks to a contemporary audience, it is rooted in a specific day over a half century ago – Oct. 4, 1965 – the day Pope Paul VI came to New York to hold a convocation in Yankee Stadium aimed at halting the Vietnam War.
“We cannot negate how important a day it was for New York City and for the larger nation – the 40 million Catholics that were in America – it was enormously important,” says Lewis. “There was a lot at stake there – the nuclear arms race was heating up, countries were at each other’s throats, Vietnam was heating up. The pope was coming to New York to say we must lay down our arms to embrace our brothers.”
Ronnie is about to be sent off to Vietnam, which is enough to make any mother bonkers. “Ronnie is the center of her universe,” explains Garcia. “Even though her mental state kind of starts to unravel, she understands that her son is going into the army and perhaps off to war, possibly Vietnam. The center of her life could be in jeopardy.”
However much Bananas is mentally unstable, she is also the sanest character in the play. “With moments of real clarity,” says Garcia.
“The truth-telling of some of her lines is devastating,” adds Linser. “One of my favorites, she says, ‘I don’t mind not feeling so long as I can be in a place I remember feeling.’ That’s so powerful.”
“This is a farce in the American style that has some true meaning that percolates right underneath the surface,” says Lewis. “So be entertained, first and foremost, and then maybe, hopefully, see what’s inside.”
Asked why he thinks everyone should come see The House of Blue Leaves, Linser says, “Number one, because they’ll see people that they can relate to and understand and empathize with. I think that’s always the main reason to come see a play. Two, they will be entertained and touched by those people and those relationships and those situations and those stories, if they choose to allow themselves to go there.
“If they don’t want to go there, they’ll still be entertained because it’s a really fun, funny, oftentimes silly play. So I think there’s something in it for everybody that comes to the theater.”
THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, May 17-Sunday, June 2. $75. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.