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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Walter Kerr


  Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Stiller/ Ph: Joan Marcus

In the age of “American Idol,” can John Guare’s cockeyed 1966 look at the festering wish for fame still be meaningful? Directed by Thomas Cromer, the new revival at the Walter Kerr may press all the right buttons, but it doesn’t succeed in sending a real wake-up call.

The story is still at once familiar and surreal. Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller) is a tense, angry zookeeper who dreams of being a Hollywood songwriter. He’s egged on by his celebrity-crazed girlfriend, Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and held back not only by his evident lack of talent, but also by his housebound, overmedicated madwoman of a wife, Bananas (Edie Falco). But on the day in 1965 when the play takes place, the Pope’s visit to Queens stirs a new hope in miracles, and Bunny finally prevails upon Artie to call his childhood-pal-turned-Hollywood-director Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski) to ask for the helping hand that could launch his show-biz career. Mayhem ensues, as the Shaughnessy’s Sunnyside apartment is invaded by Artie and Banana’s draftee son (Christopher Abbott), who has his own plans to become famous; the starlet engaged to Billy (Alison Pill); and a whole passel of grumpy nuns who are getting a little tired of their vows of poverty.

Guare’s reworking of the time-honored rags-to-riches dream gone amok is both exuberantly surreal and bleakly realistic. There’s never any question that Artie will actually make it, even in a world where celebrity is based more on accident than merit. In both his sheepish reluctance to call Billy and his cringing approach to his old friend, we can see that he knows it, too. What’s more, his real, if grudging connection to the bewildered Bananas suggests that he recognizes that even pursuing the dream comes at a cost. But the language of that dream is where Guare is at his most seductive, as he imbues aspiration, particularly in Bunny’s cheerleading speeches, with a lyricism that’s as beguiling as it is blatantly fantastic. Yet counterpointing this siren song is a sometimes-submerged strain in the drama that emphasizes how surreal and wondrously weird mundane reality itself can be – not least of all in how desperately Bananas wants to be able to experience it again.

Stiller (who appeared in the role of Ronnie, Artie’s son, 25 years ago) embodies the eternally disappointed Artie with a repressed rage and bitterness that’s only temporarily soothed by Bunny’s rhapsodizing. When Bananas points out how derivative one of his songs is, his fury is so palpable we fear for her safety. And that’s the kind of moment at which Falco excels in her luminous performance as the sad shut-in who can’t figure out how to maneuver through a world gone mad and keeps misstepping without quite knowing why. With her matted hair and shabby nightgown, even silent, she’s the most compelling figure on the stage. By way of contrast, the usually excellent Jason Leigh doesn’t capture the charm that Bunny needs to have, however mean-spirited and tawdry it may be – perhaps as a result of the actress’s effort to make her character’s Hollywood promises less appealing. But Pill and Halley Feiffer give strong support in their roles as the charming, vague starlet and the youngest nun, respectively.

In its claustrophobic, cluttered apartment set and its cleverly kitschy costumes, the play remains resolutely of its period. But ironically, it’s in the contemporary relevance of its concerns that the real chasm between then and now becomes clear. It’s not that the desire to transcend everyday life and be Raptured off to celebritydom doesn’t resonate any longer; it’s that by now it’s so built into our collective psyche it’s hard to accept – or even fully comprehend – criticism of it. And while there are moments of homage to reality built into the script of House of Blue Leaves, this production doesn’t ever achieve the balance needed to make Artie’s struggle a real contest.


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