Not since my last date with a sadomasochist have I been so desperate to leave a show at intermission, only to cheer so loudly at the very end.
Yes, the David Cromer-directed revival of John Guare‘s 1966 black comedy The House of Blue Leaves is that kind of schizo experience.
For the absurdist play to work, you have to feel empathy for its assortment of oddballs in Sunnyside, Queens, all overreacting as the pope sweeps into town.
But in Act One, the production drives you away from any connection with them.
Ben Stiller is a zookeeper/songwriter, but his real zoo is at home, where his wife is deeply depressed (Edie Falco, sans makeup, stares into space and overdoes the catatonia) and his girlfriend prattles on like crazy (Jennifer Jason Leigh overplays the chirpiness while using a weird character voice that’s really hard to take).
I know the gloom is a directorial choice, but where is the charm?
The tone is wrong — distancing, unpleasant, not funny enough.
Even the set is tilted — literally — to hammer home just how whacked-out these people are.
But ever the gent, I stuck it out, thinking, “At least I’m indoors.”
Then came Act Two, with its fourth-wall-breaking (the audience becomes a character) and way zanier shenanigans involving a deaf actress, a bomb scare, and some beer-guzzling nuns.
And the production finally gives in to just the right tone of endearing lunacy!
It clicks. It provokes. It entertains. It disturbs.
Stiller may not seem low-level enough for his character, but he does well with it, especially when singing a cheesy knockoff of a popular tune without even realizing its origin.
And as my initial horror with this show dissolved, I had no more boos for Blue‘s clues.
Maybe just second-act this one?
P.S.: This makes three shows in 10 days with wacky nuns. There was the cursing addict nun of High, the hip-swiveling, disco-dancing nuns of Sister Act, and now this bunch of whack jobs (though admittedly it was written way ahead of the trend, when the idea was truly subversive).
If I never see a cute nun again onstage — or in life — I’ll feel much closer to heaven.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2011