Friday, April 08, 2011

The House of Blue Leaves

This excellent revival of the John Guare play has a very strong cast, headed by Ben Stiller as Artie Shaughnessy, the extraordinary Edie Falco, as his wife Bananas, and Jennifer Jason Leigh doing a very funny turn as his lover, Bunny. The play is extremely funny and vicious, an American classic along the lines of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the production, well directed by David Cromer, sustains the right balance of wackiness and discomfort, really going for the jugular. The women are all excellent, including Alison Pill, unrecognizable as a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, and Halley Feiffer as a disgruntled nun.
My only beef is with Ben Stiller, who seems a little stiff in the role. Stiller doesn't mind getting all dark. His Artie seems to emit negative energy. But this is untempered by any other traits. Stiller plays the piano and sings and acts, but there is no nuance to the character. He has a wonderful scene on the phone with his successful best friend in Hollywood, in which he goes all out in desperation, self-humiliation and embarrassment (which have always been his forte as a comedian), but I wish there were more layers to his performance. His diminished tenderness for Bananas is in the text, but the lines ring hollow; the feeling doesn't seem to be there. I think he lacks a certain working class charm, a soft spot, a silver lining.
However, his girls, as Artie calls them, are something else. Jason Leigh, an actress that is not known for her light comedic touch, or for a light touch at all, is terrific as Bunny, a vain, cruel, ignorant, contagiously bubbly Lady Macbeth of sorts. She sports a nasal Queens accent and a ridiculous jet black wig and gives a genuinely funny, spirited performance that somehow finds the likability in Bunny. Edie Falco's sweet, loony, sad Bananas is a fantastic counterpoint to Bunny's ruthless energy. Falco is funny and heartbreaking. In hammier hands, Bananas could be painful to watch. But Falco finds the perfect balance between craziness and knowingness, and does not hit a false note. The play is a hoot, and it has aged well. As our national obsession with fame has reached proportions of absurdity that John Guare may not have possibly imagined back in the sixties, when he wrote it, this savage play about the American desperation to succeed and be famous at all costs is even more resonant today. 

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