Set in 1965 playwright John Guare's “The House of Blue Leaves” was a groundbreaking work, an American family drama set amid European-like absurdity. Now the Gamm Theatre has revived “Blue Leaves.” Bill Gale says it holds up, pretty well.
“Blue Leaves” is a place where the weird get going. Here’s a moment from act two. The Pope is arriving in New York and everyone is agog, including three nuns who have been shut out of the route of His Holiness. So, they climb up a fire escape and push their way into the top floor apartment of poor schnook of a guy named Artie. “Let us watch it on TV, “they implore.
Artie says “okay.” His poor, mentally-challenged wife, Bananas, sits on the floor, howling at the moon. His girlfriend, Bunny, asks a pertinent question: “Sometimes I think the whole world has gone coucoo, don't you?”
Ah yes, no doubt. At least in John Guare's world where all is desperation amid poor judgment. “The House of Blue Leaves” looks in on Artie, a Queens New York boy (as is the playwright) who has managed to get a job as a zoo keeper in Central Park.
His life and loves are also zoo-like. Bananas, is filled with doctor-inspired drugs and an existential fear of further electric shock treatments.
Bunny, is determined to see that Artie makes it to Hollywood and fame and fortune. And, poor Artie is simply overwhelmed by his improbable desires about becoming a famous songwriter, a man of distinction. His need for this is so apparent and so obviously impossible that you both laugh at and bleed for the guy.
First produced in New York in 1975 “Blues Leaves” was controversial from the get-go. Some critics saw it as a near-masterpiece. Others doubted it's staying power. These days it seems a little overdone, a little long. But “Blue Leaves” still has much to say about American life and is hilarious to boot. Artie and his crowd are the American dream in default.
At the Gamm, director Fred Sullivan Jr. has propelled this production with all the quicksilver drive it needs. The show goes full speed ahead all the time, and that approach works.
As Artie, Tom Gleadow is perfect. In a waning middle age, his drive, his helplessness, his need, his hopes are all clearly delineated. Whether he's singing away in a sleazy saloon or getting literally smacked around by Bunny and Bananas, he's all hat and no cattle as they say in Texas.
Rachel Dulude as Bunny and Jeanine Kane as Bananas, are both marvelous; ridiculously funny, and sad, too. Karen Carpenter, Julia Bartoletti, Stephen Liebhauser and a number of others are all fine support, funny and right on at once.
In the end then, “The House of Blue Leaves” still crackles enough in its grotesque and funny look at the American family and its dreams. The Pope goes away but the need and desire continue.
Playwright Guare has one more trick at the end. It's shocking. And it will send you out of the theater shaking your head, and wondering, too.
“The House of Blue Leaves” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through April 5th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.