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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Walter Kerr


  Ben Stiller and Edie Falco/ PH: Joan Marcus

Even a mediocre production of House of Blue Leaves can be a worthwhile experience – a testament to the enduring strength of John Guare's 1971 dark comedy. Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco headline the current incarnation, the play's second Broadway revival in 25 years, which lumbers through a precarious first act with uncertain performances and misguided direction. The intensity finally builds to farcical proportions after intermission, with an onslaught of new characters and an injection of energy, but this production, from the usually reliable director David Cromer, falls short of its full comedic and tragic potential.
Stiller plays Artie Shaughnessy, a lonely Queens zookeeper in 1965 who has a son in the military; a mentally unstable wife, appropriately named Bananas (Falco); and a mistress, Bunny (Leigh), who's gaga about the Pope's impending visit to New York. Encouraged by Bunny, Artie clings to the hope that it's not too late to find fame and fortune as a songwriter and longs to leave New York and Bananas and escape to Hollywood, where his old friend Billy Einhorn (the always engaging Thomas Sadoski, who makes a late-inning appearance) is a successful movie director.
Set and written during an era when American values were changing and the country was rife with conflict, House of Blue Leaves perceptively probes our worship of celebrity and religion. And Guare's original characters and outlandish plot are still evocative, even though Cromer minimizes the dark comedy and Leigh and Stiller don't fully connect to each other and their roles. Stiller's best work comes in his final scenes, and Falco navigates the tricky role of the heartbreaking but by no means broken Bananas with aplomb. A supporting cast that includes Christopher Abbott as Artie and Bananas's son, Alison Pill as Billy's deaf starlet girlfriend, and Mary Beth Hurt and Halley Feiffer as nuns on a mission buoys the madcap antics.
Costumer designer Jane Greenwood incorporates the characters' excesses into their clothes, especially Leigh's colorful period attire, but Scott Pask's cluttered, chaotic apartment set seems misconceived for the Kerr's proscenium stage. It's angled to face the right side of the house, and that's where the actors seem to be directing their performances. Those sitting to the left may feel disconnected from the production, but they may not be the only ones. This House of Blue Leaves is caught in an identity crisis of its own – one that a clearer sense of purpose might have solved. 


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