Saturday, April 23, 2011

The House of Blue Leaves

Earlier this week, I went to see a preview of the new revival of "The House of Blue Leaves," the John Guare play that was first produced in 1971. I'd never seen a live production of the show, but I had seen a televised performance from the 1986 production that starred Swoosie Kurtz and John Mahoney. Ben Stiller, who played the son in that production, now plays the father, Artie, and Edie Falco plays his wife, Bananas, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as his girlfriend, Bunny.

First the superficial details: the set is gorgeous. Unfortunately, it is also needlessly filled with obstructions, particularly if you are sitting, as we were, in the fifth row on either the right or left. Performances disappeared behind furniture, in doorways, into alcoves, and even, frequently, behind other performers on the stage. Get seats in the balcony or center orchestra if you go. But, you really should go. While Ben Stiller is a bit stiff in the early scenes, he loosens up and becomes more confident as the show goes on. Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh seemed miscast (shouldn't they switch roles?) but, in fact, they are both fantastic. Falco makes Bananas simultaneously absurd and tragic; Jennifer Jason Leigh manages to own her role as a superficial, celebrity-obsessed social climber. Some early online reviews claimed she was a complete failure in the part, but at the performance I saw, she got the biggest laughs.

I did have some issues with the direction. I know they were going for a darker version of the play than previous incarnations. But it didn't always work. In particular, the slapstick staging in the second act seemed out of place next to the more naturalistic tone. Also, it seems an odd choice to bring a greater sense of realism to a play that constantly addresses the audience as if the characters expect their lives to be lived on a stage. But the performances, particularly by the women, make it worthwhile.

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