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Humor Drowns in 'Blue Leaves'

April 24, 1998|DARYL H. MILLER

"The House of Blue Leaves" is one of those plays that many attempt but few get right.

John Guare's offbeat play inflates life's daily cruelties and hopeless delusions until they pop, like over-inflated balloons. When it's staged well, it can be cathartic--a cleansing explosion of laughter. When it isn't, as in a new production at Stages in Anaheim, it's merely bizarre.

Director Susana Garcia makes a mistake common to this show, which is to play it for laughs, exaggerating the already outsized humor until it's no longer funny.

Guare hints at a better approach in an introduction he once wrote to the play. "Somewhere in my head 'Dance of Death' became the same play as 'A Flea in Her Ear,' " he explained. "Why shouldn't Strindberg and Feydeau get married, at least live together, and 'The House of Blue Leaves' be their child?"

That's an unusual union to be sure, so perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on Garcia--especially since a couple of her performers, notably Bennet Gale in the pivotal role of Artie Shaughnessy, are headed in vaguely the right direction.

Artie and the other characters are "constantly being humiliated by their dreams, their loves, their wants, their best parts," writes Guare (who would later write "Six Degrees of Separation") in his introduction.

Artie, a zookeeper, feeds animals for a living yet can't nourish himself. He dreams of being a famous songwriter yet can only turn out copies of other people's tunes. His wife, a seeming mental case, is more aware than he thinks, and his not-so-secret girlfriend is crazier than he cares to acknowledge. To top it off, his son, for whom he feels a possessive pride, is AWOL from the Army with assassination on his mind.

This all comes to a head on the chilly fall day in 1965 when the pope rides through Artie's neighborhood in Sunnyside, Queens. Miracles are in the air, but not for Artie.

Artie vacillates between undaunted good humor and stunning cruelty, and Gale musters both pretty well. He gives Artie a sappy smile and just enough sadness around his eyes to make us empathize with him even when he's being bad. In the small role of a nun--a novice, actually--who takes refuge from the cold in Artie's apartment, Lisa Escobar tinges her performance with hints both sweet and sour.

Some of the other characterizations might make for amusing sketches on "Saturday Night Live," but they're too much for this play. Caroline Torrez, as Artie's motor-mouth, wannabe sex kitten of a girlfriend, and Cleta Cohen, as Artie's whimpering, fidgeting wife, fall into this category.

The rest of the performances range from adequate to not even close.

Set designer Ken Jaedicke realistically renders the Shaughnessy living room yet gives it a fanciful touch with mottled blue walls that suggest the blue leaves of the play's metaphoric title. If only the rest of the production had been handled as subtly.


"The House of Blue Leaves," Stages, 1188 N. Fountain Way, Suite E, Anaheim. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday, 6 p.m. Ends May 10. $10. (714) 630-3059. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Bennet Gale: Artie Shaughnessy

Caroline Torrez: Bunny Flingus

Cleta Cohen: Bananas Shaughnessy

Eric Johnson: Ronnie Shaughnessy

Teresa Carrillo: Corrinna Stroller

Leslie Williams: Head Nun

Paige Giffin: Second Nun

Lisa Escobar: Little Nun

Timothy Roberts: Billy Einhorn

Kirk Huff: M.P.

Eddie Majalca: The White Man

A Stages production. Written by John Guare. Directed by Susana Garcia. Assistant director: David Amitin. Set: Ken Jaedicke. Lights: Adam Clark. Sound: Kreg Donahoe. Technical director: Jon Gaw. Producer: Brian Kojac.

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