It’s an ironic time for Charlotte Shakespeare to revive a play written around the 1965 maiden visit of a Pope to the United States. John Guare’s black comedy takes place in Queens, New York, as the city waits for Pope Paul VI to bring miracles into their lives.
The visit actually happened, and the Pope dedicated his entire day trip to New York City. He spoke to the General Assembly at the United Nations, had a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria with Lyndon Johnson and was viewed in person by an estimated million people, with 100 more watching on TV.
This provides the backdrop to “The House of Blue Leaves,” Guare’s outlandish, dated play. It won an Obie and the Drama Critics’ Circle award for best American play when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1971, and the1986 revival won four Tonys. While some gags still work, and the darkness is real, what was shocking in 1971 teeters on insensitivity today.
Joe Copley plays Artie Shaughnessy, a Central Park zookeeper who fantasizes about making it as a Hollywood musician. His best friend from childhood is Hollywood bigwig Billy Einhorn (Dean Biasucci), so the idea wouldn’t be farfetched, if Artie had any musical talent. He doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Artie’s wife is bonkers. Today, we’d say she’s had a mental breakdown. You’ll either love or hate that her name is Bananas.
The plot is driven by Artie’s girlfriend Bunny, played in bombastic Technicolor by Meghan Lowther. In this 1965 time capsule, it is socially acceptable for the girlfriend to be flaunted in front of the crazy wife. Bunny lives downstairs and is determined that she and Artie will see the Pope, who will bless his music and grant her wish to have Artie’s wife die, so they can start a new life in California.
Throw in a few nuns, a son who seeks attention through violence and a deaf ex-Hollywood star, and you’ll either laugh or cry at the result.
The ensuing mayhem is deep, dark and yesteryear. The play is a comedy masked as a tragedy, peopled by characters who live side by side but cannot see or hear each other. Religion is a false but enticing balm. The presence of zany nuns in habits is a comedy crutch that was probably shocking in the 1970s but just seems archaic today.
The saving graces are the two female leads. Barbi Van Schaick is terrific as Bananas. She transitions from raving lunatic to insightful victim between handfuls of pills she is force-fed by her husband, and she is terrifically funny. Lowther is also a hoot, with her defiant determination to seize this opportunity for love.
Elise Wilkinson’s most effective direction involves sudden movements, like the one where deaf Corrinna Stroller (Glynnis O’Donoghue) is rushed by nuns (how scary would that be?), or the little nun (Amanda Liles) is rushed by a handsome man (equally scary, if you were a nun).
If you are over 47, the set is a trip down memory lane. From the diner-style napkin dispenser to the ratty afghan on the couch to the needlepoint pillows, you’ll fondly recognize something from your aunt’s house.