Next Theatre Company

I had this friend, an actor, who shared a fantasy about producing the worst show in town. We would get the worst actors, the worst director, the worst designers, you name it. True, it was an arrogant fantasy, but not an unambitious one. Anyone could mount a merely bad production with inexperienced actors, a stupid script, etc. That would be easy. But the worst takes a little work. The play itself would have to be subscription-audience fare, slightly dated, neither profound nor innocuous, and preferably a comedy. The talent (as we called them) would be, each in his own way, self-absorbed: actors who had never experienced the phenomenon of dialogue, a director who was legally deaf, and a scene designer with the soul of a window dresser. It was also in our cynical fantasy that, should we actually produce such an artistic catastrophe, no one would get the joke except us. We even figured we’d get a standing ovation if we papered the house on opening night.

Well, somebody beat us to it. The Next Theatre may not have received that opening night ovation for The House of Blue Leaves but, by God, they put on one hell of a mediocre show. I’m here to tell you, you get (1) a darling set that affords only two acting areas; (2) a cast who know their lines, the last three words of their cue lines, and little more; (3) unmotivated blocking and acting; (4) direction that is so devoid of rhythm as to constitute a crime against both art and nature; (5) shtick that killed vaudeville; and (6) one–count ’em, one–laugh.

Now I don’t know about you, but in my book that’s an accomplishment. I mean, you can put on a really bad show, but if it gets too bad it becomes unintentionally camp, which is funny, and then you’ve blown it. So let’s take a look at The House of Blue Leaves. It’s a comedy, but Next Theatre has managed to stage it in such a way that it merits one laugh. That one laugh–almost as if they threw it in for spite–is the crowning touch.

The aforesaid laugh comes about a half hour into the first act. Don’t miss it. Bananas, Artie’s mentally disturbed wife, has recently made her entrance. It becomes apparent why Artie is fooling around with Bunny, the downstairs neighbor, even though she’s an idiot. It also becomes apparent that Ann Dowd (as Bananas) is not going to improve upon the already low standard of community-theater-level acting established by Lawrence Arancio and Bonnie Sue Arp. But then Dowd turns to the audience and welcomes us into her house. And Dowd is startlingly funny, direct, focused, bizarrely ingratiating, original, and everything she is not for the remainder of the play. It only lasts a few seconds.

It doesn’t seem odd to me that Dowd should have to cross through the fourth wall to find that moment of humor and rapport. None of the characters connect with each other onstage. Everyone is running around, gesticulating, using that travesty of an accent that gave Brooklyn a bad name, and barely listening to one another. Arancio’s performance as Artie has the energy, and the absentminded presence, of a hamster on an exercise wheel. Bonnie Sue Arp (Bunny Flingus) wears a wig and cat’s-eye glasses, wriggles when she walks, and wouldn’t know a joke if it bit her on the ass. No wonder there’s no ensemble. It’s like The Gong Show meets Hollywood Squares up there.

I did, however, identify one dramatic moment, also in the first act. Artie is just about to run out and see the pope. (The play is set in New York, in 1965, during the pope’s visit.) Bananas has just delivered what in another actor’s hands might have been a hysterically funny monologue. Then Artie kneels at Bananas’s feet, imploring her to come and see the pope, who might somehow cure her with his blessing. But this is just a taste of what could be. If we could sense some suffering in Bananas, or feel the slightest twinge of sympathy for Artie’s dilemma, the moment would have some context. There might be some black humor, some pathos. This twitching catalog of one-liners could shape up into a play. And the play (who knows?) might mean something.

But the play doesn’t mean anything, in spite of all the sweat and creativity invested by playwright John Guare. In the end, Bunny runs off with an independent film producer and Artie strangles Bananas because he can’t cope with her anymore. I know, it sounds like there’s more going on in this play than meets the eye, but you’d have to read it to find out. You certainly won’t find it in this production.

Director Harriet Spizziri is the master deconstructionist behind the scenes. In going for cheap laughs, she has discounted humor so much that she can’t give it away. But the thing that amazes me the most about her direction is that she has absolutely no sense of rhythm. I don’t think she would know to follow a gunshot with a pause. There’s no comic timing, no transitions, no development and fruition of either relationships or ideas, and no cumulative effect other than a sort of malaise that leaves you praying for intermission. I don’t know how she did it without a document shredder.

For me, as I’ve said, The House of Blue Leaves is a fantasy come true. I now understand that some things are better, more amusing, as fantasies. And that when such fantasies pass through the twilight zone into reality, the result is a little disheartening. To the general audience, of course, this production will prove neither funny nor depressing, but rather perfectly blah.