‘The House of Blue Leaves’ is a little bit of everything

NEW YORK — The star-studded revival of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, currently playing the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, jumps around in tone almost as much as the crazed characters jump around the antiquated comforts of their 1960s Queens apartment. This lack of tonal definition, although sporting both dramatic and comedic elements, ultimately proves to be the downfall of the David Cromer-directed production. The performances are never able to latch onto something concrete; they exist in their own worlds.

Ben Stiller, who made his Broadway debut in the same play back in the 1980s, plays Artie Shaughnessy, a depressed zookeeper who moonlights as a two-bit cabaret singer. His dream is to make it big one day in Hollywood, writing songs for the movies. Artie sounds like a typical theatrical hero, lost in his present predicament and all starry-eyed. But he’s not all benign, for he welcomes the company of his new girlfriend, Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh), even though his mentally-forsaken wife, Bananas (Edie Falco), still lives at home. The three characters spiral into each other’s hopes and promises, at times spewing hatred, other times offering up a joke or two, and almost always looking helpless and forlorn. These are lost souls, trying to capture something genuine in life before it’s too late.

The dysfunctional family drama is set to the backdrop of a visit from the pope to the streets of Queens. The papal journey is a means for the pontiff to offer his comments on the Vietnam War, and Artie and Bunny plan on securing spots along his motorcade route, hoping some residual holiness seeps onto their dreamy minds. But troubling matters is Ronnie (Christopher Abbott), the son of Artie and Bananas. He’s a similarly broken man, but unlike his family, he has a devious plot in his mind to change everything: He wants to blow up the pope with a makeshift bomb.

Although the plot feels heavy, Guare actually lifts each of the characters up using great comedic lines. Act II becomes a downright farce when a bunch of nuns climb in through the window to watch the pontiff’s journey on television, plus there’s a straitjacket mix-up and a few “hard-of-hearing” jokes at the expense of a deaf character on stage.

The problem is that Cromer seems unable to decide what tone fits the play the best. The comedy feels pushed (and unfortunately Jason Leigh is not too funny in what should be a hilarious role), and the drama feels trite. It all adds up to just another tale, and Guare’s two-act piece should feel devastating, for both its comments on celebrity and family and its inherent heartbreak.

The uneven acting doesn’t help. Falco turns in another impressive New York stage performance (following on the heels of last year’s This Wide Night), while Alison Pill is funny as the wife of Artie’s old friend. But Stiller never sells his pivotal role, and Jason Leigh works too hard to imbue Bunny with an organic air-headedness. Both portrayals fall flat.

Cromer is able to throw in a few of his characteristic directorial touches, including a moving finale, but it all feels like window-dressing. The House of Blue Leaves proves to be a slow burn, while it ought to sizzle.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • The House of Blue Leaves

  • Directed by David Cromer

  • Written by John Guare

  • Starring Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh

  • Playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre at 219 W. 48th St. in New York City (through July 9, 2011)

  • Click here for more information. Tickets are $57-$277, with discounts available at www.BroadwayBox.com.

  • Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

  • Rating: ★★½☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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