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A Zany Slice of Life Turns Serious : Strong acting and good writing help shift 'House of Leaves' from farce to drama.

November 04, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

BURBANK — John Guare's first full-length play, "The House of Blue Leaves," is a bountiful blend of farce and tragedy.

And, as the revival of this 1970 black comedy by the Alliance Repertory Company in Burbank confirms, the play is so durable that even a mixed, quasi out-of-control production is watchable.

Such is the case at the snug Alliance, where you almost sit on top of the actors. The welcome news about this show is its vivid casting. The unwelcome news is the production's loud, frenetic staging and its cluttered interior set design--so full of deliberately tasteless art and wretched knickknacks that the effect, like much of the show, is overkill.

With such a heavy hand, the play's dark, deeper fissures are marginalized.

Centered on flaky dreamers who live behind wrought-iron bars in a tacky Queens apartment, the ever-hopeful characters tango with life's pervasive insanity--particularly Artie Shaughnessy (Bob Neches), a zookeeper who wants to be a songwriter and his dingbat wife, Bananas (Anne Wyndham), who barks like a dog.

Not least among the exotics is Artie's blowzy, cartoonish girlfriend Bunny (Gigi Bermingham), who lives a floor below Artie and wants to run away with him to Hollywood where they'll meet celebrities and sell Artie's songs.

Several other characters in search of a bigger life burst in and out of this crazy quilt of a nuthouse, including three cheerful nuns and Artie and Bananas' disturbed son Ronnie (Tim Misuradze).

Now Neches' sympathetic zookeeper, who opens the play as a seedy lounge act playing popular standards that he hilariously thinks are his own, is blind to the love he already has at home.

That's why the visit of Artie's childhood friend-turned hustling-Hollywood director (Peter Allas), accompanied by a dime-store starlet (Hilary Davis), crucially propels the play's subtle shift from farce into genuine drama.

The ending is fiercely tender, but because the production leans so heavily on bombast, the tender strangulation at fade-out remains more shock than natural consequence of the text.

Fortunately, many of the principals create shaded, complex people.

Too often, however, director Nancy Locke stages her flock of characters at such a breakneck clip that Guare's dramatic / thematic intentions are muffled.

But even a tarnished "House of Blue Leaves" rewards your attention--for the several choice performances and the rich, indestructible writing.

Where and When

What: "The House of Blue Leaves."

Location: Alliance Repertory Company, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Ends Nov. 19.

Price: $15.

Call: (213) 660-8587.

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