Friday, May 3, 2019

Palm Beach Dramaworks to Stage John Guare’s Surreal Comedy, ‘The House of Blue Leaves’


It is a testimony to the importance and endurance of John Guare as a major American playwright that this Obie Award-winning play, The House of Blue Leaves, was written in the late 1960s and that his most recent play, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, is currently running Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.  In between those years he’s written many award winning plays, a musical, and screenplays.  Guare received the PEN/Laura Pels Master Playwright Award and the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In effect, Palm Beach Dramaworks concludes its 2018/2019 season with an emphatic exclamation point, The House of Blue Leaves opening on May 17 and continuing through June 2nd.

The action takes place in October 1965 during the first visit by a reigning Pope to the United States. Millions are lining up along his parade route from Queens to New York City to greet him.  Among the throngs will be zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy, a wannabe Hollywood songwriter with big dreams and no discernible talent, in the hope that a papal blessing will whisk him away from Queens, leaving his mentally ill wife, Bananas, behind and into a new life in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Bunny Flingus.

With the Vietnam War constantly in the background, and the hilarity of virtually every character vying to view the Pope, or receiving a blessing from the Pope or maneuvering for a brief moment of fame, The House of Blue Leaves is a black comedy, with farce and reality in stark, sudden juxtaposition.  Guare, who also wrote the entertainingly bad songs “composed” by Artie, has said that The House of Blue Leaves is about “humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other.”  In spite of the underlying seriousness of the play, we should be prepared for dialed up laughter.

Director J. Barry Lewis opined that “my challenge is to bring the script to life by finding the comedy through the characters.  It is a narrative story and while a farce to an extent, it is not at the same break neck speed.  It is more of a comedy in a field of the absurd.  This type of theatre is complex so we generally sought out knowledgeable local actors, ones we’ve mostly worked with before, so we could quickly ramp up. Our audience is going to have fun seeing so many familiar actors in some unusual roles.”

He went on to add, “And don’t underestimate the importance of the New York City scene, and the Vietnam era of the play.  There is a constant state of anxiety and high expectations of the Pope’s visit. It captures the American Dream of hope.  The central theme of the hollowness of seeking celebrity status is omnipresent.”  

In that regard, its relevancy to today is uncanny, celebrity worship, anxiety about our political situation, and hope for its resolution.

Vanessa Morosco, Bruce Linser, Elena Maria Garcia
Photo by Tim Stepien
Bruce Linser, well known to the PBD audience as a director and the manager of PBD’s Dramaworkshop plays zookeeper / woefully-mediocre-songwriter-seeking-fame-and-fortune, Artie Shaughnessy.  I asked him what it feels like to be on the stage again and without hesitation he said “it’s good being back on the stage and it’s a forceful reminder as to how difficult it is to be a really good actor. I love playing Artie.  Guare was very mindful that comedy could undermine the character development. He’s a fascinating and heartbreaking character and I hope to bring those attributes forth so the audience will feel for him.”

Linser comes to the stage with an extensive musical performance background so he’s very comfortable playing this frustrated songwriter and performing his grade B songs.  As he added “Artie’s musical abilities and works are good enough to pass as songs but bad enough to be funny.”

The two female leads have names in the play which sound like they were made-up by sitcom writer, Artie’s girlfriend Bunny Flingus (played by Vanessa Morosco) and Artie’s wife Bananas Shaughnessy (played by Elena Maria Garcia, her PBD debut).

Bunny is the downstairs neighbor who is pushing Artie to move to California in pursuit of the celebrity status they both so desperately want.  Vanessa Morosco said “I love playing the role of Bunny as she’s excitingly unpredictable and is subject to fantasies. I also love this play, which has an incredible place in the canon of American plays, with Guare entreating the close attention of the audience as characters routinely break the fourth wall to argue their case or to express their private thoughts.”

Poor Bananas, for whom Artie is seeking an institution to take her off his hands, and release him into the dreams he has for himself and Bunny.  But Bananas has moments of lucidity and insight as well as drastic mood changes.  It is a challenging part, and has been Elena Maria Garcia’s “dream role.”  Why?  As she explained, “I feel a very close relationship to this play as I wrote my thesis on it when I studied drama.  And the character of Bananas particularly fascinated me as I was drawn by her innocence as well as being in the center of a hurricane of action around her.”

The play has hilarious subplots and therefore in addition to the three leads there is an extensive cast, featuring, in alphabetical order, Irene Adjan, Jim Ballard, Austin Carroll, Elizabeth Dimon, Margery Lowe, and Krystal Millie Valdes (PBD debut).  Rounding out the cast are Timothy Bowman (PBD debut) and Pierre Tannous.  Scenic design is by Victor Becker, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Kirk Bookman, and sound design is by Steve Shapiro.

It promises to be a fun filled and thought provoking production at The Don & Ann Brown Theatre on Clematis Street beginning May 17 through June 2.