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Spring cleaning hasn’t penetrated the gloom that pervades the Queens apartment of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. David Cromer, who directs this Broadway revival of the 1966 script, has made a career of tapping a particular vein of American melancholy. In shows such as The Adding Machine, Our Town, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, he has made misery shimmer, conjuring a shivery blend of tears and laughter. In this play, which takes place in a Sunnyside two-bedroom on the day of the Pope’s 1965 visit to New York, Cromer has sourced malaise even in the set, an unglamorous array of beers, books, pill bottles, lyric sheets, and windows criss-crossed with creaking metal grates.
It’s here that Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller), a zookeeper and would-be songsmith, lives with his schizophrenic wife Bananas (Edie Falco) and disaffected teen son Ron (Christopher Abbott). In the apartment below lurks a floozy by the Dickensian name of Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with whom Artie hopes to elope to L.A. Into this mix flit three nuns, a movie star, a big-name director, a military policeman, an asylum orderly, and one heck of an improvised explosive device.
Such an agglomeration suggests farce, but Cromer has tamped down the comedy and sought out the sorrow at the core of every character, even those of the beer-drinking nuns. This focus deemphasizes some of Guare’s delicious absurdity, but it does tug at the heartstrings in a manner far more tuneful than Artie’s thumps on the piano keys.
None of the central performances is quite as fully realized as you might wish—Stiller, for example, captures the “dreaming boy” aspect of Artie, but not the loathing that drives him. Yet together they somehow harmonize, ably conveying Guare’s gentle, genial take on the pathos of unremarkable, everyday lives. “The famous ones,” sighs Bunny, “they’re the real people. We’re the creatures of their dreams.” But it’s these sad dreams that Cromer spends his waking life imagining.