Broadway review: An A-list cast trapped in a B-list house
NEW YORK - On an October day in 1965, Pope Paul VI was ahead of his time: He went on the road like a rock star of later decades.
He landed at JFK in New York, popped into St, Patrick's cathedral, chatted with President Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf, addressed the United Nations, celebrated Mass at Yankee, hit the World's Fair in Queens and was airborne toward the Vatican about 14 hours after he had touched down.
John Guare's play, The House of Blue Leaves, takes place that day in a shabby Queens apartment where everyone seems, unlike the Pope, to be running in quicksand.
The quirky 40-year-old play, whose Broadway revival opened on Monday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is blessed with an A-list cast in compelling performances: Ben Stiller and Edie Falco, and in lesser roles, Mary Beth Hurt, Allison Pill and others. Under the direction of David Cromer, they chase this strange play down until they own it.
Blue Leaves involves a zookeeper desperate for a break as a singer/songwriter and his schizophrenic wife, his flight-of-fancy girlfriend and - by the end - a trio of spunky nuns, a son with a mad plot, an old pal who's made it big producing in Hollywood and that guy's starlet babe.
Guare, who also wrote Six Degrees of Separation, the film Alt antic City and this season's A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center, boldly mixes theatrical devices in The House of Blue Leaves. I found the play, which I'd not seen before, disjointed and sometimes clumsy - when the first half is heading toward intermission, for instance, the characters suddenly begin talking directly to the audience, as if another version of the Blue Leaves is suddenly being staged. Or when the play builds to a cheap, unaffecting ending.
Blue Leaves is dead serious until it develops bizarre second-half hijinks - lively and funny and unexpected, which makes them even funnier in the change of theatrical tone. Although I didn't care much for this pastiche, I was taken by the production, which unspools on a wonderfully abysmal apartment set by Scott Pask.
Ben Stiller plays the would-be singer/songwriter and parses a man pulled three ways: He is burdened by a mentally ill wife and feels stymied by responsibility; he is drawn to a girlfriend who offers him a more promising world; he's driven by a desire to follow his musical passion. (The songs Guare wrote for him are purposely awful.)
Edie Falco, currently starring in TV's Nurse Jackie after her rich ride as Carmelo Soprano in The Sopranos, is terrific as the ill wife. She speaks normally one minute, then as a lost soul in though the next - a seamless transition. When Falco is on-stage but not speaking, which is often, watch her face and especially her eyes; she has created, and is acting in, her own world. Jennifer Jason Lee (Proof) gamely plays the other woman, and makes sense of the play's most unnatural lines.
The revival comes with a curiosity. Ben Stiller's mother, Anne Meara, appeared in the play when it opened 40 years ago Off-Broadway. Stiller himself was on stage when The House of Blue Leaves first played on Broadway a quarter-century back; he was the menacing teenage son now portrayed by Christopher Abbott. This revival marks Stiller's first Broadway appearance since that debut.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.