Court Theatre

John Guare doesn’t make things easy on the people who produce his work. His characters are bundles of neurotic contradictions, his plots spin giddily out of control, and his dense language is full of images that appear and disappear like mysterious little dreams. Add to all this Guare’s penchant for letting his characters suddenly address the audience in the middle of otherwise conventional scenes, and you have enough challenges to thwart even the most creative artistic team.

Of course, these elements also provide a certain playfulness, and it’s this sense of play that the actors have grabbed on to in Court Theatre’s production of The House of Blue Leaves. This two-act monster of a comedy is so full of bizarre twists and turns and weighty ornamentation an actor needs a strong sense of humor just to survive the evening.

The House of Blue Leaves is set in the cramped Queens apartment of Artie Shaughnessy (Patrick Clear), a zookeeper and aspiring but talentless songwriter (his greatest composition, “I Love You so I Keep Dreaming,” is simply “White Christmas” with different words). His nearly blind wife, Bananas (Barbara E. Robertson), is certifiable, never leaving the apartment because her fingernails are all different lengths. Artie has taken up with downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus (Ruth Landis), and the two of them cruelly flaunt their affair before Bananas every chance they get.

The action takes place on the day the pope is paying a visit to New York, and his arrival heightens everyone’s sense of worthlessness, a feeling they try desperately to conceal. As Bunny says early in the play, “When famous people go to sleep at night, it’s us they dream of, Artie. The famous ones–they’re the real people. We’re the creatures of their dreams.”

During the first act Artie tries to maintain his sanity as Bunny and Bananas tear his loyalties in all directions. All he really wants is a job writing songs for the movies his good friend Billy Einhorn (Matt DeCaro) is making in Hollywood. In the second act all hell breaks loose. Artie’s son Ronnie (Chuck Huber) prepares to blow up the pope so that he’ll be “on headlines all over the world.” The apartment is besieged by second-rate movie starlet Corrinna Stroller (Rebecca MacLean), who quickly loses her hearing aid and ends up screaming nonsense at everyone, and three nuns (Tina Thuerwachter, Patricia Donegan, and Colleen Kane) who got trapped on Artie’s roof hoping to get a glimpse of the pope. The actors handle Guare’s theatrical high jinks skillfully, steadily building the level of insanity until Ronnie’s bomb goes off down the hall and brings things to an abrupt halt.

While the cast seem at home with the physical comedy, they are less comfortable with Guare’s dialogue. For example, to express her hatred of Bananas, Bunny says, “When the pope rides by, the wish in my heart is gonna knock the pope’s eye out. It is braided in tall letters, all my veins and arteries and aortas are braided into the wish that she dies pretty soon.”

With such elaborate language the actors have a difficult time hanging onto each scene’s dramatic moments. Instead of focusing on how the characters use language to achieve their ends, director Philip Killian encourages his actors to emphasize the characters’ emotional stakes in the images themselves. Bunny believes that Bananas’ suffering is petty and inconsequential, for example, and to drive that point home she tells a long story about Sandra Dee being unable to find her hair curlers the night before she’s to begin filming her first movie. Here, Bunny says, is an example of real suffering. Bananas, on the other hand, suffers “like a nobody.” Bunny tells the story for Bananas’ benefit. But in telling it Landis in essence leaves Bananas out, diving into the emotions of the story instead, nearly in tears over Sandra Dee’s dilemma. It’s quite funny, but Landis loses the dramatic point of the monologue; it’s about Bananas, not about Sandra Dee.

The result is a kind of unraveling of Guare’s fabric; images are isolated rather than woven into a larger context. Often the actors are so focused on the momentary emotions of their texts that they overlook the effect their language is supposed to have on other characters or how it drives the play forward. And often the emotions are simply not what the play is about.