By Dale King
The House of Blue Leaves, the darkly seriocomic John Guare play, is appropriately apt as the finale for Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 19th season.
The show that packed the West Palm Beach venue on opening weekend homes in on characters who desperately want their hopes and dreams to work. But a realistic assessment says they probably won’t happen.
The Obie Award-winning show, which opened off-Broadway in 1971 and put Guare on the map of invaluable playwrights, “takes a surrealistic look at our celebrity-obsessed culture, the unholy lengths people will go to in pursuit of improbable dreams and, quoting the playwright, ‘humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other,’” said Sue Ellen Beryl, Dramaworks’ managing director.
Guare built his play around a major event, the visit of Pope Paul VI to Yankee Stadium on Oct. 4, 1965. In fact, Act I overflows with adulation for the pontiff.
The play follows the escapades of a zookeeper/unheralded songwriter (multi-talented Bruce Linser), his schizophrenic wife, Bananas (Elena Maria Garcia), who is heading for an asylum Artie dubbed “The House of Blue Leaves;” his mistress/fiancée Bunny (Vanessa Morosco) and a bevy of frenetic characters with idiosyncrasies and crackpot ideas all their own.
Garcia draws the ace for her portrayal of a mentally ill woman whose grasp of reality is more acute than most others in this play. The actress offers a delicate performance, conveying humor and wisdom along with fear and love without ever losing sight of her crippling illness. She walks a fine line between insanity and lucidity without stumbling.
Play director J. Barry Lewis taps an uber-talented cast to breathe life into characters who are not exactly ne’er-do-wells, but we know most will never do well. A talented trio of lead actors – Linser, Morosco and Garcia – keeps the show from going too far overboard as it rocks through layers of insanity and surrealism, mixed in with a dollop of cold, in-your-face reality.
The show opens with Artie Shaughnessy (Linser) playing his tunes for a disinterested audience at the El Dorado Bar and Grill. He goes from there to his fold-out bed in a dingy flat in Sunnyside, Queens, for a little shut-eye. In comes his crackpot fiancée, Bunny Flingus (Morosco), who is already preparing for the papal visit. She’s even wearing an “I Love Paul” button left over from when the Beatles visited New York a year earlier.
Taking a turn for the political high ground, Bunny says the pope is New York-bound to call for an end of the Vietnam War, which she fancifully predicts will happen the next day. As the pair begins to interact, it becomes clear that Artie has no talent and Bunny is just a gold-digger who has found herself an empty lode. Still, they banter and argue through Act I as if they were already married.
The arrival of Artie’s wife from the bedroom, wearing a nightgown, looking ill, her hair twisted and snarled, is something of a surprise, since Bunny is making herself at home in the apartment – and Bananas doesn’t seem to mind.
The character appears trance-like, speaking briefly, saying the only thing she wants is for Artie to stop shoving tranquilizers into her mouth. Just as the audience begins bonding with the character, she gets down on all fours and begins barking like a dog – to remind us of her troubling condition.
Before the trio departs to see the pope, Artie explains the meaning of “blue leaves” to his wife, who accepts his word with wide eyes and a facial expression part-way between grimace and grin. Blue leaves, he says, are simply blue birds perched in large numbers on the empty tree branches. The reference returns in haunting fashion at play’s end, a finale that’s grim and cruel in itself.
The second act is a jumble of activity, though for the characters, it is more whimsical than productive. Artie’s recently drafted son, Ronnie (Austin Carroll), is AWOL, and hides in the back room of Artie’s apartment, holding on to a “gift” the would-be terrorist intends to give the pope. Ronnie’s long, sinister monologue is designed to set the stage for the rest of the play’s mounting intensity.
Artie’s friend, Billy Einhorn (Jim Ballard), now a renowned Hollywood producer, shows up with his friend, famed actress Corrinna Stroller (Margery Lowe). Three nuns (Elizabeth Dimon, Irene Adjan and Kristal Milli Valdes) climb through the apartment window to see the pope on TV because they can’t get through the crowd. Chaos, an uptight assembly and a misplaced tragedy add a hectic dose of misadventure as the final moments of the play approach.
The House of Blue Leaves is known as a “kitchen sink” production since the action is restricted to an apartment’s food prep area – much like Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners. Dramaworks offers a bigger, more cluttered and effective set, filled with books, records and lots of sheet music. But its roots, the characters’ exacting New York accents and the portable, black-and-white TV on the floor help make the two-hour show entertaining and chronologically correct. Credit must be given to Victor Becker’s set design, which is meticulous in its careful attention to detail.
Linser and Morosco are excellent in their roles, playing characters that may exist in real life, but only in limited ways and out-of-the-way places. The acting capabilities they have fashioned while appearing on dozens of stages through the years are clearly evident.
Lowe is first-rate as Einhorn’s deaf friend, Corrinna. Her wacky, inappropriate responses provide the audience with some of the biggest laughs in the show. Carroll is a tad Mansonesque as the on-the-lam son in perilous pursuit of the pope.
THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES runs through June 2 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 210 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $75. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.