The second act of The House of Blue Leaves begins with a frenetic monologue from a bomb-carrying character who talks about a childhood tryout for a movie mogul. During the audition he did acrobatics, ran through every emotion, played music he didn't know he could play basically poured his heart and soul into a performance and was ridiculed. The play, written by John Guare (you may know him better as the author of Six Degrees of Separation), follows much the same pattern as that crazed audition. The bizarre events of a chilly October day in 1965 the day the Pope visited New York City run the gamut from gut-wrenching to Three Stooges slapstick. At its best it leaves you breathless; at its worst it leaves you bewildered.
The play lives on the edge of a recognizable urban setting, a crowded New York apartment building peopled by extreme characters a world in which nuns can appear on your roof and bombs can go off unexpectedly, a world where characters named Bunny and Bananas coexist with deaf movie starlets, where zoo animals conspire to give birth simultaneously and trees seem to be covered with blue leaves. Whether you call it black comedy or dramatic farce, it's a difficult style for actors and audience alike.
This Stray Dog Theatre production, directed by Gary F. Bell (who does double duty as costume designer) is mostly successful in confronting the challenges posed by Guare's play. Will Ledbetter anchors the cast as Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper who dreams of being a famous songwriter. His journey from the opening "Amateur Night" performance to his final a cappella cry of despair is keenly portrayed. Kim Furlow lights up Artie's life as Bunny Flingus, the downstairs neighbor who gladly provides sex but refuses to cook for Artie until he divorces his wife and marries her. In her various pink and tangerine outfits complete with matching plastic earrings Furlow is feast for the eyes.
But it's Margeau Baue Steinau's performance as Artie's mentally ill wife, Bananas, that captures the heart and style of this show. Her fearless portrayal moves from depression to mania, from delusion to sobriety, and carries the audience along with each effortless jump. Guare saddles his actors with long monologues delivered directly to the audience; Steinau sparkles in her soliloquy, a marvelous dream of meeting Jackie Kennedy, President Johnson, Bob Hope and Cardinal Spellman. Later she delivers a chilling description of shock treatments, offering a glimpse into the dark side of Guare's fanciful world.
While the first act focuses on the Artie/Bunny/Bananas triangle, the second act brings in a horde of supporting characters to complicate their lives. Brandon Burton, as Artie and Bananas' bombastic son, Ronnie, delivers an energetic monologue to open Act Two, while Cherish Varley, Jan Niehoff and Karen Palmer portray a trio of beer-drinking nuns who want to watch the Pope's visit on Artie's TV. Pattie Lynn and Michael Monsey add to the mayhem as movie big shots, each with great comic scenes.
Bell takes a long time getting the action started in the first act and with scene changes, but most of the second act clips along at appropriately breakneck speed, as Artie's dreams are twisted into useless shreds. Solid production elements support the actors' work, from Jeff David's angular set to the details of Cathy Altholz's decoration. Tyler Duenow's lighting design is especially effective in the final moments, when a surprising turn of events turns the farcical action inside-out.
This final dramatic twist, however, feels more like a playwright toying with his audience than a true ending. Nothing in what we've seen from Artie throughout the play justifies his action at end, and it leaves the audience feeling confused and manipulated. Having ridden Guare's roller coaster of shifting emotions, Artie and the audience are dumped in a cold, dark place that seems boroughs away from the bizarre yet hopeful world in which we began our journey. A murky transition into the curtain call only exacerbates this problem, ending the show on a tentative note that undercuts all that fine acting.