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'House of Blue Leaves' Is Showing Its Age

February 02, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — "The House of Blue Leaves" was way ahead of its time when it premiered a quarter-century ago. Today, John Guare's first full-length play feels dated.

Its satirical preoccupation with loony, talentless nobodies, whose envy of the rich and famous emits a sick desperation to join them, no longer seems prescient.

Nor does its zany anticipation of the "me" decade come off like a blackly comic antidote to Andy Warhol's 15-minutes-of-fame theory, as director Patricia L. Terry's schoolmarm program notes would have it.

If, as she writes, "Guare asks us to look at our culture and the things that define our culture and the way we define ourselves within our culture," her production at the Alternative Repertory Theatre leaves the impression, inadvertently perhaps but not inaccurately, that Guare is taking revenge on his characters.

First, let's give the Warhol idea a rest. It's a cliche that has long since outlived its usefulness. It no more defines us than the moral high ground defines Al D'Amato. Second, if Guare's play "offers yet another opportunity to explore theater rife with ideas and challenges," why does this revival ring so hollow?

Rife or ripe, there's no substitute for brains. This "Blue Leaves" lacks the force of an illuminating intelligence. The show has over-the-top energy to spare but little cohesion. It is just as scattered as the flakes in it and, in the end, a bit rancid.

Despite a broadly farcical performance from Dennis McLernon as Artie, the songwriting zookeeper who would rather be in show biz, despite Laurie Freed's depiction of his spacey, suicidal wife Bananas--the production's most sensitive performance--and despite Teresa Meza's cockamamie portrait of their downstairs neighbor Corrina, Artie's overcooked lover, there just isn't enough here to chew on.

Terry, who put together an adroitly funny "Private Lives" last season, also has staged "Blue Leaves" for comic effect, but this time the laughs are few. That's partly because Guare's play is not nearly as witty as Noel Coward's and partly because the ensemble as a whole lacks the mordant touch that might have put the comedy over.

*

Guare has set the play on a day the pope is visiting New York. Artie's whole neighborhood--the entire city, it seems, and then some--is lining up on nearby Queens Boulevard to catch a glimpse of the pope in his glass-covered Popemobile.

As a celebrity-crazed nun, Dina Bartello does manage the sort of Lily Tomlinesque trenchancy required. But the role is very small.

Technically, Terry and her design team have found a solution to the tight configuration of their stage. ART may still be the size of a postage stamp, but the company now has some breathing room for its in-the-round presentations.

Unfortunately, "Blue Leaves" needs a lot more than breathing room to stay alive. It needs life support.

* "The House of Blue Leaves," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Thurdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends March 3. $16. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Dennis McLernon: Artie

Jeanne Dubuque Walters: Bunny

Laurie Freed: Bananas

Andrew J. Kelley: Ronnie

Teresa Meza: Corrina

Dina Bartello: Nun

Gwenda Deacon: Nun

Peter L. Quintana: Billy

An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of a play by John Guare. Directed by Patricia L. Terry. Producer: Gary Christensen. Scenic design: Kristan Clark. Costume design: Michael Pacciorini. Lighting design: David C. Palmer. Sound design: Christensen. Prop design: Looi Goring. Stage manager: Michael Cox.

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