Helmer David Cromer knows the secret to a good revival: Keep it faithful and don’t comment from on high. The year is 1965 and America is looking for miracles in Cromer’s transporting revival of “The House of Blue Leaves,” John Guare’s insanely funny comedy about the impact of a historic Papal visit on a troubled Queens household. Topliners Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh should get more bottoms on seats; but the starry casting was no desperation measure. Guare’s iconic play not only holds up, it still sets the bar for smart comic lunacy.
While he may be (or appear to be) too young for the part, Stiller is excellently cast as Artie Shaughnessy, a middle-aged zookeeper who is being eaten alive by his unrealized aspirations to be a songwriter. (“I’m too old to be a young talent!” is his anguished cri de coeur.)
Stiller is so personally appealing, so comically desperate, and so oblivious to the absurdity of his ambitions that he makes the character of Artie almost likeable — despite the fact that this selfish idiot is planning to abandon his schizophrenic wife, Bananas (Falco), and their unstable soldier son, Ronnie (Christopher Abbott), to run off to Hollywood with Bunny Flingus (Leigh), his downstairs neighbor.
Anne Meara (Stiller’s mother) played the ruthless, manipulative, voraciously needy (but still hilarious for all that) Bunny in the original 1971 production, and she still holds title to the part. Leigh looks fabulously awful in Jane Greenwood’s cruel (but accurate) period outfits, and she clearly relishes all the nasty bits of Bunny’s grandiose scheme to have Bananas locked up so she can ride Artie to Hollywood. But thesp overlooks the cheerful, almost triumphal sense of entitlement that Meara brought to the role — no minor omission, since it’s Bunny who embodies our ignominious national tendency to deify celebrities and to childishly demand to join their ranks. Pathetic as he is, Artie is only Bunny’s bitch.
It takes some kind of genius to find the humor in a suffering schizophrenic like Bananas, who is so far gone (and so heavily medicated) that she can’t be trusted outside the grim tenement apartment (in Scott Pask’s claustrophobic design) that has become her prison. But Falco is that kind of genius. She finds comedy in the goofy hat and gaga grin that Bananas slaps on to greet visitors, and tragedy in her memories of the feeling person she once was. What floors us is Falco’s ability to play both comedy and tragedy in the same breath.
Guare is famous for the zany plots that illustrate his surreal visions of what passes for modern civilization. This one involves the antics of three runaway nuns, two Hollywood celebrities, one mad bomber and Pope Paul VI, who remains offstage but serves as the catalyst for all the mayhem in Artie’s apartment.
But the key to the play lies beyond these apartment walls, in the broader framework of the unsettled period of the mid-Sixties, when America was still reeling from the assassination of JFK and just becoming aware of what was going on in Vietnam. From Guare’s perspective, it was a time when people were running for the hills and finding oblivion in their personal daydreams — religious mania, celebrity worship, political assassination, Hollywood fantasy, even schizophrenia — and it was his mission to wake them up with a good laugh.