Comedy. Farce. Drama. Romance. Although audience members having a night on the town may not consciously classify the genre of a play they're watching, they are nevertheless gathering clues in order to understand its world. John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for example, is a black comedy, mining uncomfortable topics for their humor without undermining their gravity. Unfortunately, The Gallery Players' current revival of Guare's 1966 play is so muddled that it has lost both its incisiveness and its sense of humor. The hero of The House of Blue Leaves is one Artie Shaughnessy, a middle-aged zoo-keeper from Queens who dreams of fame as a Hollywood songwriter but sees his chance for a breakthrough diminishing day by day. He's supported in his ambition through his lover, Bunny, who uses her only talent – gourmet cooking – to attach herself to the man she sees as her ticket to Hollywood. Artie's path to fame and fortune is hampered, however, by the need to care for his mentally ill wife, Bananas, whom he plans to commit to the sanitarium of the play's title.
Although an Act Two influx of zany characters – including a bomb-building alter-boy, a deaf starlet, and a trio of nuns – pushes the play towards farce, there is an edge of violence and despair which belies the work's lighter aspects. In the end, Artie recognizes the hopelessness of his situation, and with an agonized cry -- “I'm too old to be a young talent!” -- strikes out at the person he imagines is holding him back. He never understands what the audience grasps: the true obstacle to Artie gaining fame and fortune is his own lack of talent, evidenced by the old-fashioned, lackluster tunes he peddles. This is the bitter pill which firmly establishes The House of Blue Leaves as a true black comedy.
Director Dev Bondarin has failed to find the right tone for her production, mining neither the play's farcical elements nor its darker moments for their humor. Not even Artie's account of his first encounter with Bunny in a steam room, when her prattle about cooking aroused him so much that he immediately ripped off his towel and took her by force, leading to her deadpan observation that “there's a man in here...”, managed to raise a titter.
The lead actors -- Burke Adams (Artie), Stacey Scotte (Bunny), and Victoria Budonis (Bananas) – are all able performers, with Budonis in particular showing a good stage presence and a fine voice, but all three seem disconnected from one another and from the text. The actors in the smaller roles fare better. Alex Herrald's manic Ronnie Shaughnessy, Artie's AWOL son who tries to achieve notoriety by blowing up the Pope, injects some much needed energy into the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. Emilie Soffe is charming as a diminutive novice nun who reconsiders her holy calling, while Tom Cleary as Hollywood director Billy Einhorn offers Artie a tantalizing taste of life beyond Sunnyside, Queens.
Although the storytelling aspects of The House of Blue Leaves are wanting, Bondarin's production is handsomely designed. Ann Bartek's cozy box set, with its yellow and red floral wallpaper and cramped Pullman kitchen, suitably evokes New York in the 1960s, while the heavy iron bars on the window hint at the apartment's darker function as Bananas and Artie Shaughnessy's current prison. The only false notes in Bartek's design are the photographs which pepper the walls: the black and white 8 x 10s are so uniform that they appear to have been recently printed on photo paper.
Brad L. Scoggin's costumes suitably express each character's unique situation, from Bananas' grubby robe and nightgown, to Ronnie's outgrown alter-boy outfit, to Billy Einhorn's sophisticated turtleneck-and-tweed ensemble. The sound design by Chris Rummel is solid, with convincing street noise and an excellent facsimile of an explosion. Lighting designer Ryan Bauer creates attractive and occasionally poignant effects, particularly in the final moments of the play, when he gives Artie the spotlight he begged for in the prologue, and it turns out to be a pattern of blue leaves, as if Artie is trapped in the very sanitarium he had intended for his wife. That moment is truly a thing of beauty.
Nevertheless, strong design is not enough to overcome the shortcomings of this House of Blue Leaves. Without a clear sense of its genre and strong connections between the performers, the production flounders, leaving its message about the dangerous pull of celebrity and the soul-killing ache of mediocrity unstated and its humor ultimately unrealized.