Chicago Theatre Review
Just This Side of Absurd
The House of Blue Leaves – Raven Theatre
In 1971 a quirky new comedy, tinged with dark overtones, opened Off Broadway to much acclaim. John Guare’s unconventional play became a smash hit and garnered several awards. After making the rounds in regional and educational theatre, it was revived in 1986, both Off Broadway, at Lincoln Center, and then eventually on Broadway, where it took home several Tony Awards. It was once again revived in 2011 and played for a limited engagement. Finally, after a long Midwestern absence, John Guare’s wild and wacky comedy has returned to Chicagoland.
The prolific Mr. Guare became the go-to playwright during the second half of the 20th century. Along with David Mamet and Sam Shephard, it’s said that John Guare helped reshape the face of American contemporary theatre. Following the success of his first hit, “The House of Blue Leaves,” Guare wrote more popular plays, such as “Rich and Famous,” “Landscape of the Body,” “Marco Polo Sings a Solo,” “Bosoms and Neglect,” “Lydie Breeze,” “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun” and his signature show, “Six Degrees of Separation.” Known for his comic, off-kilter view of life, Guare’s plays are almost absurdist, combining offbeat comedy with stories that focus on failing or floundering human relationships and dreams.
Set in Queens, during the Fall of 1965, on the historic day when Pope Paul VI visited New York, an aspiring songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy experiences a series of unexpected events over the course of a couple of days. The play opens on Artie, sitting at a piano and playing some of his original compositions. He’s hoping to win the grand prize at an amateur talent contest.
Disappointed with the results, Artie heads back to his Sunnyside apartment, where he’s awakened early the next morning by his downstairs girlfriend, Bunny. She’s scheduled their day together along the Pope’s parade route, planning to persuade His Holiness to bless Artie’s compositions. Bunny also plans to finish the day by persuading Artie to finally phone the mental institution in order to have his depressed wife, Bananas, taken away. Then they’ll be free to travel out to Hollywood, where they’ll visit Billy, Artie’s longtime filmmaker friend, and become rich and famous writing songs for the movies.
Their plans go awry when Ronnie, Artie and Bananas’ angry son, goes AWOL from the army and shows up at their apartment with a homemade bomb. Corrinna, Billy’s beautiful film star girlfriend, who’s en route to Australia for a surgery that’ll cure her deafness, also drops by the apartment. She’s joined by the military police, the White Man from the hospital and a bevy of outspoken nuns hoping to meet the Pope. The day becomes a series of chaotic events and, after a tragic accident, Billy ends up in Artie’s kitchen, sobbing his eyes out. However, just when it seems as if all might actually end happily, Guare pulls the rug out from under his characters in one sudden, unexpected moment.
JoAnn Montemurro has put her own stamp on this play, staging her production on Ray Toler’s sprawling, detailed Queens apartment setting. She directs with an ear for the various pacing dictated by each character. While Artie is more relaxed and laid back, Bunny is a tightly wound kewpie doll. Bananas sets her own rhythm, which varies now and then, while the rest of the characters try to maneuver around these three. Ms. Montemurro drives the play onward and upward toward the intermission, and then allows it to race down the mountain until it finds its resolve in the final moments.
Jon Steinhagen is perfection as Artie. He’s an easy going, blue collar worker at the zoo by day, but his after-hours passion is his art. He’s a loving man, torn between the exciting, effervescent Bunny and the sweetly conflicted Bananas. He worships his successful filmmaking best friend, Billy, and dreams of a similar life in sun-drenched Hollywood, creating music and making a fortune. Mr. Steinhagen has the bright optimism and easiness of actor Kevin James, while sparkling with the charm and musical talent of a young Tony Bennett.
Sarah Hayes is terrific as Bunny. Employing an Edith Bunker-like delivery, Ms. Hayes is an absolute dynamo of spunk and enthusiasm. She provides the impetus for everything that transpires in this play and her ditzy conversation, her loving devotion and grandiose dreams keep this character running on all tracks. Derek Herman is quietly ominous as Ronnie. He provides a balance between Ms. Hayes’ vibrancy with his sinister presence. With Mr. Herman, the audience isn’t quite sure where he’s headed. Noah Simon plays Billy almost like a young Jon Levitz. He’s funny, even when he’s sad, and he nicely matches Ms. Hayes’ high-pitched energy.
But one of the funniest characters in this production is delivered by Jen Short, as the very cordial, funny Corrinna Stroller. This actress’ stylish costume, well-coifed hair, captivating smile and sunny disposition take her far in her brief time on stage. Ms. Short is especially hilarious after the movie star has secretly removed her hearing aid and can only smile and nod at the insanity around her. Continually surprised when she finds another person invading her space, Corrinna’s well-rehearsed celebrity courtesy never wanes.
The best performance of the evening, however, is Kelli Strickland’s portrayal of Bananas. This is the kind of performance that should impress those looking to award theatrical excellence. Ms. Strickland’s dry, purposely underplayed portrayal is humorous and realistic. It’s a role that, in lesser hands, might be overplayed and become obnoxious. But this talented actress understands how to ground Bananas, a woman whose world is slowly being unraveled around her. She finds the honesty and humanity in this beautiful, desperate character who, despite an emotional condition that’s kept her medicated and unable to feel, only wants her husband’s love and to have her life back again. This is the performance of the evening.
In this welcome return to John Guare’s world, which lies just this side of absurd, JoAnn Montemurro has staged an intimate, funny and delightfully entertaining production of one of the master’s finest plays. This strange, wacky comedy says so much about each of us and our continual quest for a better way of life. It’s a riff about dreams that seem just out of reach and the unexpected trajectory that our world often takes. The quirky characters may seem over-the-top but they’re all grounded in reality. Perhaps that’s what makes this play so funny; we’re actually looking at our own reflections in a mirror.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 20-June 18 by Raven Theatre Company on their East Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com