Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dramaworks Scores a Comic and Heartbreaking Rendering of ‘House of Blue Leaves’

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ season concludes with its production of John Guare’s Obie Award-winning play, The House of Blue Leaves, another outstanding PBD theatrical achievement.  On one level there is a manic zaniness, a laugh out loud plot, but below that there is the characters' inherent desperation.  Their lives are out of control.  PBD's production unpeels all these disparate layers achieving exactly what Guare must have envisioned, giving us a play completely relevant for our own time, and for all time, demonstrating the futility of equating happiness with fleeting fame.

The plot is an ingenious situation comedy about a zookeeper who lives in his own menagerie in a Sunnyside Queens apartment in 1965.  Artie Shaughnessy is also a mediocre songwriter which he and his girlfriend, his downstairs neighbor Bunny, see as a ticket to stardom if they could only ditch his “crazy” wife Bananas in a mental institution.  They are hell-bent to go to Hollywood where his boyhood chum, Billy Einhorn, has become a famous director. 

There, Artie presumably will become a famous writer of musical numbers for film, but just to make sure, Bunny insists they must get the Pope’s blessing during his trip from the airport, past their apartment on Queens Blvd, ultimately on his way to Yankee Stadium for a speech in 1965.  (No kidding, the Pope made such a trip then with the world hoping his visit would help end the Vietnam War).  Everyone wants in the action with the Pope, three Nuns who wind up in the apartment and the Shaughnessy son, Ronnie, who has gone AWOL from the military to “take care of” the Pope (if you know what I mean).  Also arriving is Billy’s hard-of-hearing girlfriend, the movie star, Corrinna.  Why?  Because Billy too will soon arrive in NY as they are planning to go off to Australia for Corrinna’s ear operation (“Australia’s the place for ears!”) and to film Billy’s Australian epic, entitled, what else, “Kangaroo.”  Did I miss anyone?  So sets the stage for a dramatic denouement while many animals in the Central Park zoo are giving birth simultaneously.

Vanessa Morosco, Elena Maria Garcia, Bruce Linser
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Here are all the elements of farce superimposed on the tragedy of a world gone inexplicable, which encapsulates the entire play in an absurdist undertow.  The cast frequently breaks the fourth wall, engaging the audience directly, yet another unusual technique employed by Guare.  This works brilliantly because it feels so natural.  And how many playwrights compose their own songs and lyrics for a non-musical drama, with Artie frequently and frantically compelled to perform a lick or two on the piano?

In full disclosure, I lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the 1960’s and was born and bred not far from the same Queens Blvd in the play, near where the playwright himself grew up.  It’s very personal to me, the geography, but most of all the events transpiring just at that time; the horror of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, the transformation from the placid decade of the fifties to one of upheaval and anxiety.  These were assimilated in our popular culture, our theatres, our literature, our newspapers and airwaves.  They lurk below the surface in Guare’s idiosyncratic The House of Blue Leaves.  It was not terribly unlike today’s wacky world, but without the Internet and social media.  Yet, celebrity worship, fame and the quest for notoriety are among the play’s driving themes.

Director J. Barry Lewis punches up the hilarity level so the audience starts laughing at the first glimpse of Artie, but to make this play work, he walks that fine line between slapstick and poignancy.  In particular, Artie and his wife Bananas are not one dimensional characters, but fully fleshed out vulnerable human beings we can all relate to.  Lewis knows exactly how to engage the audience to feel for them as well as laugh at them.  A frenetic chase scene through the Shaughnessy’s cramped apartment demonstrates Lewis’ mastery of split second timing to squeeze every ounce of hilarity from his characters.  And at those moments where pathos is called for, he is at the top of his game in wringing all the emotion out of his players and audience alike.  It is another J. Barry Lewis directorial master class.  

Bruce Linser is Artie Shaughnessy, the struggling songwriter who is a zookeeper by day and lounge piano player/singer on local amateur nights.  Linser is well known locally as a musical director and an accomplished actor as well.  This is a tour de force role for him.  He not only successfully brings his musical training to this part, but as an actor he brilliantly displays the vulnerability of a man who is out of control in his life, manipulated by the demands of his girlfriend Bunny who has beguiled Artie to reach way beyond his abilities.  He is also the victim of an American Dream of fame gone haywire.  There is a deeply touching desperation in his portrayal of Artie, a man who more than once says “I’m too old to be a young talent” with such comic sadness. 

Linser is especially effective in suddenly changing course, showing true love and care for his unstable wife, resisting attempts to institutionalize her on the one hand, but ultimately relenting to Bunny’s demands and his own need to escape.  He thus finds her a “home” which he describes to Bananas as one where there are beautiful blue leaves on the trees.  He looks at her lovingly and at times holds her with the love of yesteryear.  Linser makes Artie an everyman tragic figure, succumbing to the demands of his exterior world.  Artie, who frantically sought a blue spotlight when we first meet him playing the piano at a Queens Blvd lounge, gets his blue spot at the end, the metaphor full circle. 

Elena Maria Garcia, Bruce Linser
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

Besides Artie, the most fully realized and developed character in the play is Bananas, played by Elena Maria Garcia, whose antics on stage are belied by sudden clarity of thinking, sometimes the only really sane person as the fool was in Elizabethan drama.  As with her son, there is a shame based scar from her past, but in her case, her imaginary past.  Garcia sits on the edge of the stage and tells the story to the audience which culminates in her being humiliated on TV, Garcia achingly relating “Thirty million people watch Johnny Carson and they all laugh. At me…I’m nobody…Why can’t they love me?”

In some ways, the character of Bananas could be compared to Mary Tyrone or Blanche Dubois from conventional award-winning dramas.  Although essentially a comedy, Garcia brings her character into the tragic realm with her acting and Guare’s incredible script.  Like Mary Tyrone, Bananas is a victim of drugs, not morphine but psychiatric drugs which deprive her of the ability to feel.  Her fear of leaving the apartment for treatment relates to those drugs: “I don’t mind feeling nothing as long as I’m in a place I remember feeling.”  Shock treatments add to her disorientation and fear of institutionalization.

It is a role that cries out for an actress who can sustain detachment, looking blank and uncomprehending, yet grasping the significant moments.  She is a woman fighting for her life.  Garcia's performance is heartbreaking as she struggles to stay home and to help her son Ronnie as well.   Her facial expressions while other actors are engaged speak volumes of pain and even insight.

The comic fulcrum of the play is Vanessa Morosco’s performance as Bunny Flingus, Artie’s downstairs neighbor and wife in waiting, as soon as they can get rid of Bananas.  Morosco’s portrayal of Bunny is primarily played for laughs which keep coming.  She has a burning ambition for Artie (and therefore herself) to make it big in Hollywood with the help of Artie’s friend, Billy.  Morosco is a gifted physical comedian as she struts in her high heels and leopard tights or skin tight skirt.  Guare gives Bunny some of the best comic dialogue in the play, but even when not delivering lines, the audience is primed to crack up by Morosco’s gestures alone. 

Vanessa Morosco, Bruce Linser
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Bunny admits to being a bad lay and will sleep with Artie at the drop of a hat.  But she is holding out something much more special for her marriage: “My cooking is the only thing I got to lure you on with and hold you with.  Artie, we got to keep some magic for the honeymoon.”  As a leitmotif, this comes up again and again and has a bearing on a twist in the plot later.  It is hard to believe another actress could give this role that sexy, zany, eccentric punch that Morosco delivers so effortlessly.

Austin Carroll plays Artie and Bunny’s son, Ronnie, who opens up Act II with an audience heart to heart about his damaging experience when he was a 12 year old boy.  He had heard that Billy Einhorn, his father’s best friend from Hollywood, would be visiting NYC to cast his movie, “Huckleberry Finn.”  He secretly prepared himself for an “audition” and Carroll then manically demonstrates the memory of that night, laughing and crying, wildly dancing across the stage concluding with a hilarious dying swan ballet gesture.  Billy just assumed from his bizarre behavior that he was mentally challenged and that humiliation set Ronnie on a course for revenge, his objective to be on the cover of Time magazine.  The Pope’s arrival gives his delusions flight.  More fodder for the absurdist tilt and the theme of seeking fame or in this case infamy.

As the Pope is parading by on Queens Blvd, Billy’s girlfriend, Hollywood starlet, Corrinna Stroller arrives. PBD veteran of untold productions, Margery Lowe, dials up the laughter as her hearing aids give out and she pretends to understand people, perplexing other characters by her amusing inappropriate responses.  

To add to this farce, suddenly three nuns show up, played by Elizabeth Dimon, Irene Adjan and Krystal Millie Valdes.  If the first two names sound familiar it is because they have appeared in many South Florida productions, including PBD.  It was fun to see them in cameo roles.  It is Valdes’ PBD debut as “the little nun.”  All three nuns seek their own moment of fame and surround the TV so they can have photos taken of them “with” Jackie Kennedy or Mayor Lindsay.  As Adjan exclaims “Mayor Lindsay dreamboat!  Mayor Wagner ugh!”  But when they spy Corrinna, they really lose it.  More celebrity worship, with the “A list” celebrity, the Pope himself appearing on the “sacred shrine:” a black and white TV with a rabbit ear antenna. 

We finally meet Billy, the successful Hollywood director, played by PBD veteran Jim Ballard.  Reclining on the couch he says, “Good to see you Artie” with teabags covering his weary eyes.  Ballard is convincing as a Hollywood mogul, one who must surround himself with people and admiration, delivering the supremely ironical line to Artie: “You’re my touch with reality.”  And some foreshadowing: “Love is all Bananas needs.” 

Pierre Tannous plays the Military Policeman who comes to round up Ronnie and throw him in the military brig and Tim Bowman the Institution Orderly who Artie called to pack up Bananas for the Funny Farm. 

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ technical crew work hard to bring off this absurdist comedy with a relatively large cast.  Brian O’Keefe’s costumes more than meet the challenge and I suspect the award-winning Designer had a ball conceiving them, particularly Bunny’s over the top 60’s garb.  Such a pastiche of leopard tights and pink sweater with plastic booties and later her gold speckled black high heels with a skin tight skirt and dazzling brocaded waist-cinched jacket take your breath away.  You simply cannot imagine her looking any other way. 

Bananas’ outfits, by contrast, solidly reflect her broken mental state, particularly the old flannel nightgown and “shmata” blue sweater and frayed robe which reflect her disheveled personality, a sharp contrast to her one appearance in an elaborate dress with fake flowers and multiple crinoline petticoats doing a runway fashion walk saying “it’s a shame it’s 1965.  I’m like the best dressed woman of 1954.”  Billy’s outfit screams Successful Movie Mogul, with his suede jacket, cream silk scarf, and huge gold chain hanging on his chest.  And of course, unremarkable Artie is irresistible in his serviceable Zoo Keepers khaki shirt  and other nondescript clothes of a typical hard working put-upon sixties man.

Scenic design by Victor Becker showcases the shabby apartment that might have seen better days when Bananas was well and could keep up with the housekeeping.  Now it simply reflects the exhausted state of the tenants who are barely hanging on.  Their apartment is oddly pressed up against another apartment house with Ronnie’s bedroom seemingly built into that building, and has an outside fire escape at an odd angle neither going up or down – a hat tip to the absurdist sense of reality.  The space allows just enough room for a hysterical chase around and over the furniture.  Even the wall photos reflect a happier time when Bananas and Artie and Billy and his wife would frequent hot spots in the city.

Steve Shapiro’s sound design is branded 1965 by music such as “Hard Day’s Night” and sound clips of the Pope’s speech in the background.  Shapiro also “plays” Corrinna’s hearing aid breaking down with an exaggerated piercing sound which early hearing aids made, all part of the hilarity.

Lighting by Kirk Bookman is mostly full on with characters bathed in light, with appropriate lighting for the opening lounge scene and then finally the blue spotlight turning into a stage bathed in blue for the dramatic conclusion.

Shows like this are rare with realism, absurdism, comedy, and tragedy coexisting, toggling from one to another and, equally rare, a theatre company that can find that exquisite delicate balance.

"When famous people go to sleep at night, it’s us they dream of, Artie.  The famous ones – they’re the real people.  We’re the creatures of their dreams.”…..Bunny Flingus
PBD Cast and Crew on Opening Night