Talk about timely. In John Guare's very black, very funny "House of Blue Leaves" at Orange Coast College, the backdrop is Pope Paul VI's 1965 trip to New York. There's no Popemobile here, but there is plenty of talk about papal popularity, divine intervention, even a line or two about birth control. And then there's that nasty stuff about an assassination attempt at Yankee Stadium.
Anyone who thought that all the carnival razzmatazz surrounding Pope John Paul II's recent tour was faintly absurd (even sacrilegious, especially the commercialism) will find a measure of confirmation here, as well as much to smile at.
But ultimately, "Blue Leaves" isn't about Catholicism or organized religion at all. This wonderfully chaotic comedy is more interested in the disorganized desperation of living on the fringe.
Guare has said that the play, first produced in 1971, was inspired by memories of the 1965 visit and his family life in Queens. Some memories. Some family.
In one of the strangest threesomes to prance across the stage, we have Artie and Bunnie and Bananas. Artie (Michael Sims) takes care of the animals at the Bronx Zoo but wants to be a famous songwriter. Evelyn?"). Artie has no faith in the Pope but isn't against getting his sheet music blessed.
Bunnie (Katy Hurwitz) suggested that. Bumptious and unstoppable, Bunnie lives in the apartment under Artie's, which is convenient since they're lovers. She thinks they should fly to Bel Air and set up house. Bunnie believes the Pope's visit is nothing less than a good omen for their future.
The obstacle is Bananas, Artie's wife. Aptly named, Bananas (Laurie Henthorne) is completely cracked. Her favorite recreation is behaving like a dog (she laps cereal out of a bowl). In more lucid moments she fries Brillo pads, mistaking them for hamburger patties.
Then there's Ronnie, Artie and Bananas' wacko son, a bitter pill who wants notoriety so badly he's prepared to blow up the Pope.
What they all have in common is the seedy mantle of the dead-end loser. Guare's people are more than disenchanted, they're thoroughly disengaged from the mainstream. They would be a devastatingly depressing gang if not for Guare's fresh humor, which is often cynical but rarely less than eye opening.
Director John Ferzacca wants the audience to laugh, but he also plumbs the dark undertones of "Blue Leaves." The pacing often shifts gears, moving from an up-tempo excitability to a more deliberate and dense emphasis. The approach pays off, particularly in Bananas' schizophrenic meanderings (touching and revealing despite the madness). It sometimes works best without dialogue: Ronnie's appearance, a baleful image in the fading light, at the close of the first act is powerfully foreboding.
The production also benefits from some affecting performances, especially Hurwitz's. Her Bunnie is a constant surprise, a veritable explosion of vitality and zaniness. There's a streak of malice, too, but it just makes the character all the more intriguing.
Intriguing isn't enough to describe Henthorne's Bananas. She's made what is really a tragic character both an object of ridicule and compassion, not a small feat. There are times when she overdoes it and Bananas veers toward caricature, but the portrayal clicks most of the time.
Sims has lapses here and there (too studied during some of the more dramatic scenes), but he is generally able to make Artie and his frustrations accessible. Sharp is eerie as Ronnie; he's particularly good at the start of the second act, when Ronnie dominates the stage with paranoiac glee.
Because of the brittle imagery, it may be tempting to dismiss "Blue Leaves" as cruel and uncaring (Bunnie's relationship with Bananas is often brutal, and the ending is a cold-blooded stunner), but the play is more than just a prolonged sick joke. Like any sharp piece of humor that gets us to giggle and wince at the same time, it pointedly illustrates the demeaning compromises life sometimes forces on us.
"THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES" An OCC production of John Guare's comedy. Directed by John Ferzacca. With Michael Sims, Katy Hurwitz, Laurie Henthorne, Tim Sharp, Janet Newport, Kara Greene, Amy Von Freymann, Cheryl Huggins, Tom Proprofsky, Nick Winkler and Dale Delmege. Sets and lighting by David Scaglione. Costumes by Mark Sanchez. Plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the campus Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $5, $6. (714) 432-5880.