Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An Empty Room and the Right Kind of People

Artie Shaughnessy is caught between Bunny and Bananas, and that might be the least of his problems. The protagonist of John Guare's early play The House of Blue Leaves, which is currently being revived as the first production at the also recently revived Mark Taper Forum in LA, Artie works at the Central Park Zoo but wants to be Rogers and Hart, or at the least, Bob Merrill. We get to hear him sing some of his songs, in particular the ditty "Where Is the Devil in Evelyn" (why yes in Angela's eyes), but what's more, we hear him wish a billion wishes, none greater than to make it in Hollywood. He might even have a leg up--and it's not talent, it's childhood friend, now famous filmmaker, Billy Einhorn. (That Einhorn, when he shows up, is played by Diedrich Bader of Drew Carey Show and Office Space fame might be a hint he's not all Artie hopes--not that Bader's a bad actor it's that he specializes in the un-deep, you might say.) What's more, Artie's day job at the zoo does little to prepare him for Act II, a madcap farce shot through with utmost tragedy (and not just the first tragedy that's sort of played for laughs) and featuring an AWOL son, three celeb-struck nuns, three bottles of beer, two grenades, one malfunctioning hearing aid, a funny farm attendant, an MP, a Pope at Yankee Stadium on just a black-and-white TV, an eggplant casserole, and a dear deaf starlet.

House of Blue Leaves is one of those plays where everything AND the kitchen sink gets thrown in, as the set is a depressing apartment complete with kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens, 1965. Tonally it's all over, literally riotous, as anything with battling nuns in habits can be, totally touching, too, especially when Artie's wife Bananas, who is a bit off her rocker but also, of course, the sanest one in the play (when not pretending to be a dog), explains to the audience (yes, we get direct audience address, even to the point of alluding to ticket prices) how she got to where she is.

The only way a play like this works is through determined acting and this production has that down. Kate Burton's Bananas never quite loses her attractiveness--you can completely tell why Artie married her--but also never pulls completely out of her dreaminess, even when zinging Artie by pointing out one of his favorite creations is actually a rip-off of "White Christmas." (Ever looking at the bright side of life, Artie replies, "But you can sing mine year round.") Bunny, Artie's lover, is played brashly by Jane Kaczmarek (yep, the mom from Malcolm in the Middle) as a dynamic climber, hoping for the best for Artie as that will mean the best for her, too. This Bunny is no dummy--sure she puts out, but she won't cook for Artie. She knows she's a bad lay, so getting that out of the way doesn't mean much, but while she doesn't simmer in bed, she can cook in the kitchen, so she refuses to make him food, leaving something for that honeymoon. If only they can get Bananas out of the way.

That's where the House of Blue Leaves comes in, for it's Artie's artful way to jazz up the asylum where he hopes to be able to ship Bananas. This scene is emblematic of how good John Pankow is in the role--for as often despicable as Artie is, he's impossible to hate. He does want to be loved by everyone. He tells of visiting the asylum and seeing a shimmering tree of blue leaves that turns out to be birds. It's hard to tell if we should like him as he's trying to make the place sound so nice, or to hate him--he's trying to make a mad house (in 1965, so don't think of the pampering rest places we have today) sound poetic so he can leave his wife there and run off with another woman. It's "the asylum is half full" world Artie, and the songs Artie loves, wants to sell.

And lord knows we buy. Even the nuns are celeb-obsessed, at first for the Pope, which makes some sense, but then also for Corrina Stroller, a mere starlet. For a play from 1971 Guare really nails our ever-growing desires to be famous, or infamous, or at the least near the famous. While all the cast features faces known from theater and TV--that's the Mark Taper way--it's clever of this production to end up with the two most known actors together (sorry for that bit of a spoiler). Fame finds itself. The regular Joes (and Arties) of the rest of us are left to scrabble out our days knowing if we didn't exist, there'd be no famous folks--someone has to do the looking, the applauding.

Which came first, the audience or the play? I'm not sure, but I am pretty sure we all have our private houses of blue leaves in which we reside.

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Blogger Queen Whackamole said...

And best of all, the play earned a INOTBB review! Much appreciated by those of us who don't get down to LA theater enough...

9:24 AM  
Blogger Drew said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

I have never read the play "House of Blue Leave" nor have I seen it performed live. I have a vague memory of an old English teacher having a VHS tape with some TV movie production of it, recorded directly from the broadcast. Or something. But it's come up from time to time in my life, so I've looked into it and read synopses and various reviews.

Since you've actually seen it, George, maybe you can tell explain why on earth its title would appear in the last chapter of the Kill Bill Vol. One. In full, the chapter title is "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves." A bloodbath happens at a sushi bar in Japan.

Can you think of any reason why Quentin Tarantino would have used part of the title of a fairly well-known theatrical comedy for this segment? I mean, the guy steals stuff left and right, but why this?

Or does "House of Blue Leaves" have some other significance that I don't know about?

(Please excuse double post.)

4:10 PM  
Blogger George said...

Queen, thanks!

Drew, I'm going to admit something here that might make you never trust anything else I ever write.

I have not seen Kill Bill, either part.

So it's really hard for me to say. Do nuns get killed? Do the wrong people (i.e. unintended people) get killed? Does the scene end with one last surprising bit of violence?

Or perhaps Tarantino is after what Guare wrote about in his note to the play back in 1971, and likes the idea of this: "Why shouldn't Strindberg and Feydeau get married, at least live together, and The House of Blue Leaves be their love child?"

4:24 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

It's worth a watch, inexplicable House of Blue Leaves reference notwithstanding. Violent, but also one of the better feminist movies to come out in recent years. And beautifully multicultural in its bloodshed.

Nuns don't get killed in it, but lots of people do, some deserving and some not. The scene ends with a scalping, but given the Dead Alive-level of bloodshed that preceded it, it's not exactly surprising.

Maybe someone will see these comments and weigh in...

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

A lively and densely telegraphic review. As readers of Pauline Kael know, John Guare is [was] one of her passions. As followers of QT know, Pauline Kael is a QT obsession. That's far far from a definitive answer to the mystery of JG in QT. But isn't this just what comments sections are for?

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog~

7:42 PM  

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