WRT’s ‘Blue Leaves: A comic quest for the spotlight
WELLESLEY – “The House of Blue Leaves” is a bit of a schizophrenic comedy, lurching from dark and bleak to hopeful and optimistic, back to a chaotic circus and even, at times, becoming poignant and moving.
It is stocked with flawed characters, a few of whom are fatally so. Which is, of course, what makes them interesting.
The Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s production of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” now at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre is a funny, heartfelt look at people trying to find the balance between their dreams and their reality, what they wish for and what they must settle for.
Playwright Guare breaks down the fourth wall right from the start, as he has Artie Shaughnessy (Paul Michael Valley) emerge from behind the curtain to sit down at a piano, and the stage becomes one of the piano bars he frequents in Queens in hopes of being discovered as a singer/songwriter.
Artie, a zookeeper by day, performs three short songs he has written, songs that he hopes will be the road to success but even he admits he’s “getting too old to be a young talent.”
The audience cooperates by applauding his efforts, as sad as they are, and Artie beams.
Guare sets his play against the backdrop of Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York City in October 1965. Artie, we find out, has taken up with downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus (Victoria George) after the two were thrown together by a mistaken encounter in a sauna at a health club, and it was love – if not lust — at first sight.
Bunny plans to move Artie’s mentally ill wife Bananas (Molly Parker Myers) out of the way by hook or by crook, cheerfully dismissing the fact Artie is married and planning a new life as Artie’s wife. Guare gives Bunny an ongoing tag line to fit any occasion: “I didn’t work at (fill in the blank) for nothing.”
Molly Parker Myers as Bananas has been given the toughest road to hoe, out-to-lunch most of the time while sometimes offering glimpses of the woman Artie fell in love with before the illness overtook her. At other times she barks like a dog and has Artie feed her as such.
In her cogent moments she looks mournfully at Artie and realizes what is about to happen to her. “You’re off to California and I’m off to the looney bin.”
Valley’s Artie is a finely drawn mess of a man, and while we feel sympathy for someone whose dreams are out of reach, we watch in horror as he plans to have his sick wife shipped off to a mental hospital so he can bolt to LA, where he hopes lifelong friend and movie director Billy (John Kinsherf) will help him get his singing/songwriting career kickstarted.
Into the mix comes Artie and Bananas’ very reluctant soldier son Ronnie (Nicholas Yenson), who is AWOL from Fort Dix and is holding a deadly grudge against Billy – something to do with a failed audition for a Huckleberry Finn film – as well as The Pope, for that matter. Ronnie’s demented determination will wreak havoc on the innocent. Yenson has the requisite demonic look in his eye and he fits well in the chaos that is the Shaughnessy household.
The Pope ‘s arrival is also an excuse to introduce a trio of nuns (Andrea Lyman, Caitlin Graham and Ariela Nazar-Rosen) who will eventually regret – with one possible exception – ever stepping foot in the apartment.
Mara Palma struggles and has a tough road to hoe as Billy’s hearing-challenged girlfriend Corinna, who finds herself drawn into the madness.
Wellesley Repertory melds professionals with Wellesley alumnae and students and director Marta Rainer’s students lag a bit behind their more polished professional counterparts, but not enough to dim the overall effect of the piece.
Kudos to the production values: David Towlun’s expansive, detailed, shabby Sunnyside, Queens apartment; Becky Marsh’s lighting; Chelsea Kerl’s costumes and George Cooke’s sound, including a wonderfully realistic explosion that rocked the audience.
There’s a moment near the end of “Blue Leaves” when Artie, longing since the first moments of the play to be in the blue spotlight, finally gets his wish. In that way, we’re all like Artie. We’re all looking for that blue spotlight, and few of us ever find it.
The Wellesley Repertory Theatre production of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” Directed by Marta Rainer. At the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre through Jan. 31. Wellesleyrep.org.