It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world in John Guare’s clownishly dark play.
There’s not a lot to laugh at in The House of Blue Leaves. John Guare’s 1971 play seems more like a sad clown show than a dark comedy, which makes it oddly engrossing. In today’s world of underemployment and squelched dreams, Guare’s beat down schlemiels and their futile attempts at a better life are remarkably human—a quality missing from JoAnn Montemurro’s production at Raven Theatre.
It’s easy to feel sorry for the central clown in Guare’s play, Artie Shaughnessy. Strikingly played by Jon Steinhagen, Artie dreams of being a famous Hollywood composer, but, rather than make music, he spends his days working as a zookeeper and his nights floundering in barroom talent shows. To distract from his obscurity—and his psychologically unstable wife, Bananas (the remarkably compelling Kelli Strickland)—Artie takes up with Bunny (a wonderfully caustic Sarah Hayes), a woman with her own dreams of fortune and fame.
When Pope Paul VI arrives in New York, marking the first papal visit to the United States, the citywide excitement ignites Artie and Bunny’s plans to escape to Los Angeles and find their fame and fortune. It’s in these scheming moments, when Artie weighs the reality of leaving Bananas for Bunny, that the air comes out of the production. The oddly funny moments of guilt or doubt that seem to strike Artie feel hollow, overshadowed by the hurried action of the play. Whether confiding in each other or in an aside with the audience, Artie’s and others’ emotional depth often gets lost in a panic of stage business. The humanity of these everyday people, caught in increasingly odd situations, evaporates.
Guare’s play throws a lot of curveballs that Montemurro tackles fantastically: a would-be terrorist, a flock of nuns, a Hollywood mogul and his fiancé, a mental hospital doctor and the military police all parade through Artie and Bananas’ rundown apartment. It’s a circus, and Montemurro smartly juggles each successive player. But as things calm down, leaving Artie and Bananas alone with themselves, the horrifying final moments of the play fall flat. It’s a cold, frustrating finish to an otherwise smart and capable production.
Raven Theatre. By John Guare. Directed by JoAnn Montemurro. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.