Returning to an old favorite play, I journeyed to Wellesley Repertory Theatre (formerly known as Wellesley Summer Theatre) to see The House of Blue Leaves, a play by John Guare (rhymes with “flair”), an award-winning playwright. The play is arguably his best work, a period piece about American life, dashed dreams, faith, mental illness, and the relationships that hold us all together. Wellesley Repertory Theatre starts to warm up to the challenge, beginning with a slow and frigid Act 1, but ending with a triumphant statement and moment.
We open in a dingy, New York City piano bar. The guest pianist, zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy (played as a gentle and excitable bull by Paul Michael Valley) ushers us into this space by addressing us directly, asking about the drinks and commenting on his short pieces. However, this opening moment feels orchestrated, too planned by Director Marta Rainer. I can imagine that when the play premiered Off-Broadway in 1971 that this opening felt even serendipitous and surprising for modern audiences; now, in 2016, it feels cliché and gimmicky. Luckily, we are whisked away to Artie’s apartment in October 1965, the day that Pope Paul VI is set to visit New York City. We are supposed to be awakened by the arrival of Artie’s downstairs neighbor, Bunny Flingus (played with incongruous sincerity in this black comedy by Victoria George). George’s Bunny never enlivens Artie or the opening scene with the hope and excitement of what the Pope’s visit means to Bunny and George, or the rest of us. But we move along, believing as best that we can that Bunny and Artie dream of leaving this hopeless life in New York City for something more meaningful and successful in Hollywood (with the Pope’s blessing, of course). As not so young lovers, Bunny and Artie discuss marriage, the beginning of their relationship (a mistaken encounter in a sauna), and their happy future. And then Bananas drags herself into the living room from the bedroom.
Bananas (played with wide-eyed wonder and hope by Molly Parker Myers) is Artie’s wife, a woman struggling with mental illness, and she provides the main impediment to Bunny’s pursuit of Artie. Bananas is acutely aware of her precarious position within this love triangle, a woman and wife with only her past love and charm, and she uses her remaining wits to avoid being shipped off to the loony bin. The long scene in Act 1 drags under the burden of disparate acting styles competing for the audience’s attention. Are we in a kitchen-and-sink dramatic comedy? (Hint, we are not, and Guare would shudder to see his work reduced so) Are we in a black comedy? Are we commenting on society today, or a society of yester-years? Who are we supposed to believe or sympathize? Overall, the trio of leading actors is a talented bunch, boasting a long list of credits to each of their names, but they lack the cohesion in this difficult play to play adequately in the same space and on the same plane. Myers’ Bananas excites us into a frenzy, questioning both her sanity and insanity; George’s Bunny shakes us back to a reasonable and sensible mindset; Valley’s Artie, like us, is stuck in the middle between these two extremes, playing the sincere when interacting with George, and buying into life’s extremities when he shares the space with Myers. The result is a complex mess for Act 1, and the audience struggles whether to laugh at life’s (and this story’s) absurdities or whether to cry and long for the world to make sense again.
Luckily, Act 2 brings a bit more cohesion, introducing a host of life’s crazier characters, including the AWOL soldier and vengeful son, Ronnie Shaughnessy (played with excellent intensity by Nicholas Yenson); the man-of-the-hour and the predicted deus ex machina, movie director and friend Billy (played with honest and subdued sincerity by John Kinsherf); his hearing-impaired girlfriend (shhh), Corinna (played with some nice moments of confusion by Mara Palma, but ultimately overwhelmed by the role and the environment), and, my personal favorite, a trio of nuns (Caitlin Graham, Ariela Nazar-Rosen, and Andrea Lyman) who have journeyed (like us) to see the Pope and escape the cold within the Shaughnessy residence. The mayhem of these incongruous characters make Act 2 one laugh after another, and we are on the right track to appreciate this dark look at our hopes and desires, and what we ultimately settle into comfortable but disconcerted life.
The play runs long for us, if mostly because we fail to care about Valley’s Artie and his struggles in mediocrity. Instead, we empathize with his neglected wife, Myers’ Bananas, who steals the show and our hearts with her simple, doe-eyed stares and her musical and strange voice. We fall in love with life’s uncertainties and its insanity. We seek comfort in the reverie of love’s memories, rather than the hopeful and outlandish future. In short, the production failed because we weren’t pulled in the seemingly disparate directions of imagining life’s possibilities and being grounded in the life that we are dealt. This dichotomy is played out within the performances by Myers and George, with Valley caught in the middle with us, left unsure of what kind of world he is inhabiting and what he (and we) should be thinking and believing. This unevenness diminishes the play’s potential in today’s world of millennial want, crushing limitations, and the humorous hope for a better tomorrow (or Bunny).
Within this world, the production elements are at once impressive and concerning. David Towlun’s set design is expansive for a Sunnyside, Queens apartment, too much playing space makes the play’s excitement feel manageable in the space, forcing the actors to rush across the stage to orchestrate the play’s more chaotic moments. Towlun’s attention to detail, however, is most impressive, creating an intimate space of detail and memories. Becky Marsh’s lighting design is a creative mix of colors and intensities, matching time of day and mood well in the intimate black box theatre. Chelsea Kerl’s costumes left much to be desired, outfitting George’s Bunny in hardly flattering attire and lacking imagination for Corinna and Billy’s Hollywood world.
Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s The House of Blue Leaves attempts to take us to a world of hopes and dreams, a world where characters reach for a better and more fulfilled tomorrow. Ultimately, we are left wishing and wanting along with them, finding the play’s complex and nuanced themes, but little of the exploration or development in the play’s story. Myers carries the day with the help of her Act 2 co-stars of mayhem and confusion, but we struggle to want this world over the house of blue leaves. Maybe the loony bin has something more hopeful, or maybe we’re just a bit more cynical in 2016 than in 1971.