Review: Dramaworks scores heartbreaking rendering of ‘House of Blue Leaves’

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
May 24, 2019

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ season concludes with an outstanding production of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” On one level there is a manic zaniness, a laugh-out-loud plot, but below that there is the characters’ inherent desperation. Their lives are out of control. Dramaworks’ production peels back all these disparate layers, giving us a play completely relevant to our own times, demonstrating the futility of celebrity worship, fame and the quest for notoriety.

The plot is an ingenious situation comedy about a zookeeper who lives in his own menagerie in a Sunnyside Queens apartment in 1965. Artie Shaughnessy is also a mediocre songwriter which he and his girlfriend, his downstairs neighbor Bunny, see as a ticket to stardom if they could only ditch his “crazy” wife Bananas in a mental institution (one with “blue leaves” on the trees). They are hell-bent to go to Hollywood where his boyhood chum, Billy Einhorn, has become a famous director. 

Just to make sure their dreams of fame come true, Bunny insists they get the Pope’s blessing during his trip from the airport, past their apartment on Queens Boulevard, ultimately on his way to Yankee Stadium for a speech in 1965. (No kidding, the Pope made such a trip then with the world hoping his visit would help end the Vietnam War). 

Everyone wants in the action with the Pope, three nuns who wind up in the apartment and the Shaughnessy son, Ronnie, who has gone AWOL from the military to “take care of” the Pope (if you know what I mean). Also arriving is Billy’s hard-of-hearing girlfriend, the movie star, Corrinna. Why? Because Billy too will soon arrive in New York as they are planning to go off to Australia for Corrinna’s ear operation (“Australia’s the place for ears!”) and to film Billy’s Australian epic, entitled, what else, “Kangaroo.” So sets the stage for a deeply affecting denouement.

Vanessa Morosco plays Bunny Flingus
Vanessa Morosco plays Bunny Flingus. Photo by Alicia Donelan

Here are all the elements of farce superimposed on the tragedy of a world gone inexplicable, which encapsulates the entire play in an absurdist undertow. The cast frequently breaks the fourth wall, engaging the audience directly, yet another unusual technique employed by Guare. 

Director J. Barry Lewis punches up the hilarity level so the audience starts laughing at the first glimpse of Artie, but to make this play work, Lewis walks that fine line between slapstick and poignancy in this production. In particular, Artie and his wife Bananas are not one dimensional characters, but fully fleshed out vulnerable human beings we can all relate to. A frenetic chase scene through the Shaughnessy’s cramped apartment demonstrates Lewis’ mastery of split second timing to squeeze every ounce of hilarity from his characters. 

Bruce Linser’s Artie Shaughnessy is a tour de force role for him. He not only successfully brings his musical training to this part, but as an actor he wears the vulnerability of a man who is out of control in his life, manipulated by the demands of his girlfriend Bunny who has beguiled Artie to reach way beyond his abilities. Linser effectively portrays his character’s ambivalence, at times expressing true love and care for his unstable wife. He makes Artie an everyman tragic figure, succumbing to the demands of his exterior world. Artie, who frantically sought a blue spotlight when we first meet him playing the piano at a Queens Boulevard lounge, gets his blue spot at the end, the metaphor full circle.

Bananas is played by Elena Maria Garcia, whose antics on stage are belied by sudden clarity of thinking, sometimes the only really sane person as the fool was in Elizabethan drama. As with her son, there is a shame-based scar from her past, but in her case, her imaginary past. 

It is a role that cries out for an actress who can sustain detachment, looking blank and uncomprehending, yet grasping the significant moments. She is a woman fighting for her life. Her performance is heartbreaking as she struggles to stay home and to help her son Ronnie as well. Her facial expressions while other actors are engaged speak volumes of pain and even insight.

House of Blue Leaves Ronnie
Austin Carroll plays Ronnie. Photo by Alicia Donelan

The comic fulcrum of the play is Vanessa Morosco’s performance as Bunny Flingus, Artie’s downstairs neighbor and wife-in-waiting. Morosco is a gifted physical comedian. Guare gives Bunny some of the best comic dialogue in the play, but even when not delivering lines, the audience is primed to laugh at Morosco’s gestures alone. Morosco effortlessly delivers that sexy, zany, eccentric punch to the role.

Austin Carroll manically plays Artie and Bunny’s son, Ronnie, who opens up Act II with an audience heart-to-heart about his plans of seeking his own idea of fame – or infamy – by blowing up the Pope at Yankee Stadium, motivated by his suffering humiliation when he was a 12-year-old boy. 

As the Pope is parading by on Queens Boulevard, Billy’s girlfriend, Hollywood starlet Corrinna Stroller arrives. A Dramaworks veteran of untold productions, Margery Lowe dials up the laughter as her hearing aids give out and she pretends to understand people, perplexing other characters by her amusing inappropriate responses. 

To add to this farce, suddenly three nuns show up, played by Elizabeth Dimon, Irene Adjan and Krystal Millie Valdes. If the first two names sound familiar it’s because they have appeared in many South Florida productions, including Dramaworks. It was fun to see them in cameo roles. It is Valdes’ Dramaworks debut as “the little nun.” All three nuns seek their own moment of fame and surround the sacred shrine of a black and white TV with rabbit ears antenna so they can have photos taken of them “with” Jackie Kennedy or Mayor Lindsay. 

We finally meet Billy, the successful Hollywood director, played by Dramaworks veteran Jim Ballard. He is convincing as a Hollywood mogul, one who must surround himself with people and admiration, delivering the supremely ironic line to Artie: “You’re my touch with reality.”

Brian O’Keefe’s costumes more than meet the challenge, particularly Bunny’s over the top 60s pastiche of leopard tights and pink sweater with plastic booties and later her gold speckled black high heels with a skin-tight skirt and dazzling brocaded waist-cinched jacket. Bananas’ outfits, by contrast, solidly reflect her disheveled personality in an old flannel nightgown, sweater and frayed robe. And of course, unremarkable Artie is irresistible in his serviceable Zoo Keepers khaki shirt and other nondescript clothes of a typical hard working put-upon sixties man.

Scenic design by Victor Becker showcases the shabby apartment that might have seen better days. Their apartment is oddly pressed up against another apartment house and has an outside fire escape at an odd angle neither going up or down – a hat tip to the absurdist sense of reality. 

Steve Shapiro’s sound design is branded 1965 by music such as “Hard Day’s Night” and sound clips of the Pope’s speech in the background. Shapiro also “plays” Corrinna’s hearing aid breaking down with an exaggerated piercing sound which early hearing aids made, all part of the hilarity.

Lighting by Kirk Bookman is mostly full on with characters bathed in light, with appropriate lighting for the opening lounge scene and then finally the blue spotlight turning into a stage bathed in blue for the surprising dramatic conclusion.

Shows like this are rare with realism, absurdism, comedy and tragedy coexisting, toggling from one to another and – equally rare – a theatre company that can find that exquisite delicate balance.

“The House of Blue Leaves” runs through June 2. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

Pictured above: Bruce Linser and Elena Maria Garcia. Photo by Alicia Donelan

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