Capable Cast Seeks Fame in House of Blue Leaves

HOBL_Traversa_Robert_Alves_Thompson“Who am I to judge?” That phrase catapulted the current pope into a realm of celebrity coveted but rarely attained. Pope Francis’ growing cult of adoration stems not from the mere fact of his presence, but from his apparently limitless depths of empathy and willingness to call out the more spurious aspects of the faith. The celebrity of a pope, however, can be clearly delineated from celebrities such as rock stars and actors and even more so from the Kardashians of the world whose notoriety stems from simply existing. Somewhere, right now, Kato Kaelin is comforting Paris Hilton and helping her realize that famous friends and a sex tape or two do not equal the kind of adoration that inspires emulation and/or jealously. No one wants to *be* a Pope, or Dr. King or Mandela, but millions look up to their examples of how to be a better person and live their lives with intention. Adoration of musicians and actors falls almost in the realm of envy, where we wish to become these artists and bask in the glow of that kind of fame and accomplishment. Sometimes, however, the two types of fame converge and throngs pour out merely to be in the presence of His Holiness (referring to John Lennon, of course) and have these minor deities cure our ills, solve our misfortunes and shine their light on our pathetic souls. At a time when The Beatles were “bigger than Christ,” playwright John Guare captured America’s ever-growing lust for celebrity in his wickedly astute dark comedy, The House of Blue Leaves.

Leaves hasn’t been produced in RI in a while and one of the many new companies vying for space in the state, Next Generation Theatre, have taken it on, opting for a simple, stripped down approach that focuses on Guare’s subtle anarchy and the chaos of slamming door farce. Though seemingly familiar in form, Leaves is a nasty little piece and the net effect upon its original run in 1966 must have been akin to seeing Heathers after nearly of decade of John Hughes defining the teen movie experience with irreverent but mostly safe storylines. Where Yonkers and BrightonBeach offer solace and family warmth, Guare presents Sunnyside, Queens as an absurd, claustrophobic black hole from which the only escape is fame or death. Artie Shaughnessy, a downtrodden zookeeper who lives with his schizophrenic wife, is spurred on by his mistress to chase his long-simmering dreams of hitching his wagon to his famous film producer friend out in California. Artie is a composer and a horrible one at that, but his aggressive lady friend is convinced that the visit of the pope to New York will allow them to bask in some papal fortune and send Artie on his way to fame and riches after conveniently storing his loving, if not lucid, wife in an asylum. Along the way there are subplots concerning Artie’s renegade son who has gone AWOL in order to escape Vietnam and maybe blow up the pope along the way. There are nuns who act more like Beatlemaniacs than reverend sisters, deaf starlets and straightjackets and no shortage of examples of how terrible people can be to each other.

Director Gladys Cole uses as much of the William H. Hall Library space as possible, incorporating the actual stage only as a setting for Artie’s ill-advised nightclub appearances. The rest of the action takes place in the Shaughnessy apartment, which is laid out at our feet. In this intimate setting we watch the frenzied back and forth of Artie trying to deal with his mistress (whose name is Bunny Flingus, eliciting one loud snort of laughter from this reviewer, but no one else – the younger audience didn’t get it and the older ones didn’t care to) and his wife, the also singularly named Bananas. Flingus, played by a sassed up Caitlin Robert, introduces the first of many character soliloquies that at first didn’t seem to be delivered to anyone in particular, but became more clearly defined as the night progressed. She introduces the notion that celebrities dream of “real people,” for without the unwashed masses, celebrities wouldn’t exist. But, Leaves mostly shows us people who want to be someone else, while the celebrities, such as they are, merely tolerate their fans, not aspire to become one of them. Bananas, played with a flighty grace by a hardworking Amy Thompson simply wants her husband back, but she’s not above some subterfuge and even downright violent mayhem in order to achieve her ends. David Alves’ Artie is a man stuck in the middle and while he has the lion’s share of the work to do, we mostly watch him ping pong back and forth between Bunny and Bananas like an even cuddlier Ryan Gosling just trying to do the wrong thing.

Other highlights include Joe Di Mauro as Ronnie, Artie’s militant altar boy of a son, who turns in a spirited and well executed monologue to open the second act as well as Meryn Flynn as a nun who presages all of the Nunsense/Sister Act hardasses to follow in her wake. Stephanie Traversa (coming off an excellent run in Epic Theatre’s Tribes), delivers a confidently amusing performance as an actress rendered deaf by a studio accident and the always solid Alex Duckworth turns up as a Deus ex Godot in the flesh, the answer to everyone’s problems.

It is this highly capable cast that makes the show, as the technical elements are a little light, given the resources available in the space. Lighting is mostly non-existent and when attempts are made, they fall flat, so the points where the actors are left to tell Guare’s story work the best. There’s plenty of chaos, but it is the quiet moments that work best, especially when we’re reminded of how bizarre and cruel the entire scenario becomes. The House of Blue Leaves is a challenging script for all its seeming lightheartedness and we’ll see The Gamm take it on next season, but even if this production can’t compete with budgets and resources on that level, this is still a chance to see a twisted piece of our own history and reflect on our current-day cults of celebrity. Is it wrong to step over family and friends in order to take a stab at your dreams? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Maybe that’s just what it means to be an American. At least we know Pope Francis won’t judge.

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