Comedy is tough enough, but when you make it dark and cynical it’s even more challenging. The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare is one of those dark and cynical comedies, first presented in 1966 and having had two runs on Broadway in 1986 and 2011. It is full of characters that you would not want to spend time with as they are pretty obnoxious and unlikeable, and you’re sure to leave afterwards glad that your life is better than theirs. It’s a demanding piece for State of the Arts Productions to tackle and is only running this weekend at the Columbus Dance Theatre downtown.
The action takes place in the Queens apartment of Artie and Bananas Shaunessy on October 4th, 1965, the date that Pope Paul VI is visiting New York. Artie works at the zoo but is an aspiring songwriter; Bananas is heavily medicated and suffering from depression; Ronnie is their GI son who has gone AWOL and has plans to blow up the Pope; and Bunny Flingus is the loudmouth neighbor with which Artie is having an open affair. Into their lives enter friends from their past as well as a group of rambunctious nuns as the improbabilities of the day play out. The house of the title refers to the asylum to which Artie threatens to send Bananas.
It’s oddly prescient that The House of Blue Leaves arrives in Columbus the same week that the Pope is visiting the U.S., and the coincidence isn’t lost on Gwen Edwards, whose son Quentin was the Artistic Director of State of the Arts Productions (SoArtsPro) and secured the rights to the play before his untimely passing more than a year ago. Playbill even reported on the fact that SoArtsPro is the only theatre company in the country performing this work during the Pope’s visit, and that article can be found here: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/a-pope-a-play-and-the-unexpected-legacy-behind-an-upcoming-house-of-blue-leaves-361689
It’s refreshing to see theatre that feels a little dangerous, as if anything could happen at any moment. Many of the performers have limited stage experience, but in an odd way it kind of works for this material as everyone performs at pretty much the same level. The cast works together to tell this story the best way they can, and the result is an admirable effort. Karen Benedict seems so frail and helpless as Bananas Shaunessy that she absconds with the audience’s affection, making one of the final plot twists feel particularly caustic in a work that was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable comedy. Not having seen any other production, I don’t know if the “shocked into silence” reaction the audience had at the denouement is what was intended. It makes an impact, make no mistake.
Director Sehri Wickliffe’s direction has its share of moments that come off as awkward and ill-timed (a scene involving some scuffling between Nick Evans and John Montgomery is badly choreographed), but in a strange way it comes off as more genuine because of it; the odd pauses and pacing only add to a general uneasiness that helps the comedy rather than inhibits it (most of the time at least).
The set is a collaborative effort between many people, and there’s something charming about the myriad of pieces laid out to represent the cold, downtrodden Queens apartment. The stage at Columbus Dance Theatre allows for a lot of depth and it is used to maximum effect, an art often lost with some of the larger theatre companies. It’s difficult to nail down the period from the set alone, but it definitely belongs to a time many decades ago.
The House of Blue Leaves is a daring work for a community theatre as it deals with death, mental illness, infidelity, religion, and murder, and yet it is funny as well. I’m glad that I saw what SoArtsPro did with the material, and, rough as it is, I can honestly say that it held my interest throughout. Not all of the comedic moments landed, but enough did that I would definitely consider this glass half full.
**/ out of ****
The House of Blue Leaves continues through to September 27th at Columbus Dance Theatre located at 592 East Main Street, and more information can be found at http://www.soartspro.com