The renovated Mark Taper Forum, with its expanded jewel-box lobby, more spacious lounges and plusher seats, must await a more auspicious tenant than this flat, misconceived revival of John Guare’s 1970 breakthrough “The House of Blue Leaves.” Helmer Nicholas Martin exacerbates script’s tonal challenges and dicey humor, while stinting the compensatory humanity beneath a dog-eat-dog struggle to grab life’s brass ring.
“Miracles are in the air” is the greeting on a nonpareil day of hoped-for transformation, Pope Paul VI’s New York visit in October 1965. The denizens of Guare’s cockeyed Sunnyside, Queens identify in differing ways with the rich and famous, and each would pray to join celebrity’s ranks, none more so than affable schlub Artie Shaughnessy (John Pankow). “Zookeeper” is emblazoned on his paycheck, but “songwriter” is stenciled on his heart.
Sporting bowtie and loser-plaid jacket, Artie’s in his element tinkling his corny but heartfelt tunes (“Since we split up/The skies we lit up/Looked all bit up/Like Fido chewed them”). But if pushing every successful man is a successful woman, wife Bananas (Kate Burton) represents cement overshoes. Shuffling unkempt around their Sunnyside crackerbox, she needles him unmercifully between passive-aggressive spates of martyrdom and guilt.
A heavenly lifeline from the limbo of life with Bananas is dangled by zaftig mistress Bunny (Jane Kaczmarek): She tempts him with her gastronomic skill – she’ll canoodle but not cook – until he institutionalizes Bananas and pursues a movie career through a boyhood chum turned Hollywood mogul, Billy Einhorn (Diedrich Bader).
This chilly theme and variations on the wages of ambition aren’t exactly fresh after almost 40 years, but they could be interpreted as such if the characters’ desperate needs underlied their selfish one-upmanship. At the Taper, slackness rather than need sets in early.
Kaczmarek’s brassy Bunny exudes a desperation to keep the play’s comic energy flowing, not to justify a rootless, job-hopping existence. Her lines are pounded out to cue laughter, but before long only pounding is heard. Burton personifies wispy delicacy but mutes the annoying traits from which Artie yearns to escape; yes, she’s loopy, but restrained and never convincingly bananas.
Meanwhile, Pankow is directed to ride on one-note geniality throughout. If he has mentally worked out Artie’s seesawing contempt and affection for Bananas, that justification doesn’t come through in action; Artie emerges as neither cruel nor clueless, just absent. Eventually Guare’s shocking denouement, to which Artie’s entire performance needs to be structured, feels random and certainly unmoving.
Act two expands the cast in a more traditional farcical vein without extending the laugh quotient. As AWOL G.I. son Ronnie — anticipating headlines when he sets off hand grenades during the Pope’s appearance — James Immekus a strains and screeches, and bobbles the punchline in a boyhood humiliation monologue.
A trio of New Jersey nuns (Rusty Schwimmer, Mary Kay Wulf and Angela Goethals) seeking succor are strictly out of a fraternity skit; their tussle over tickets for the Pope’s Yankee Stadium Mass is executed hesitantly, as if marking time in rehearsal prior to the fight choreographer’s arrival.
Goethals shines upon deciding to forgo her wimple for the secular life, while Bader (a dead ringer for Warren Beatty in his heyday) amusingly captures a superstar’s capacity to extract exactly what he wants while making the “little people” feel appreciated.
And Mia Barron is priceless as a stone-deaf starlet intent on hiding her infirmity, her hopeful response to a seemingly inquiring nun – “Unitarian” – nailing the night’s fullest laugh. But when the strongest perfs are on the periphery, the world is screwy in a way the most absurd playwright of the Absurd could not have intended.
David Korins’ ostentatious blue-curtain backdrop and footlights emphasize showbiz presentationalism as characters periodically step out of the tacky apartment to address us on a forestage. But the breaks seem inconsistent and unmotivated, perhaps explaining why Donald Holder’s light cues struggle to keep up.
The reborn Taper appears to render more intimate the relation between spectator and performer, as well as between characters. It should avail future productions.