Artie Shaughnessy is an untalented songwriter with a dream — and it's because she feeds this dream, as well as his ego, that he loves Bunny, his confident, glossy, mindlessly positive girlfriend. The fact that he's married to the aptly named Bananas presents very little problem: As soon as he can get his wife safely stashed away in a lunatic asylum, he and Bunny will be free to pursue his ambitions, utilizing an improbably important contact he actually has with a Hollywood director. On the day in 1965 when we meet this trio, Pope Pius VI is visiting New York, and Artie and Bananas' Vietnam-vet son has secretly returned with mayhem in mind. At various points, Corrinna Stroller, a starlet whose career foundered because of her deafness, three nuns more interested in celebrity than Catholicism and Artie's big-name director friend, Billy, all drop in to complicate the plot of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves.
There are all kinds of elements at play here: farce; violence; deliberately derivative, sentimental songs; hints of real human feeling. At some point, almost everyone gets to deliver a monologue full of memories, personal revelations and/or loopy metaphor. In fact, on one level, the whole script is metaphoric. The house of blue leaves is the mental institution in which Artie wants to confine Bananas; he named it when he was on a reconnaissance visit and saw a tree full of fluttering, blue-winged birds. Birds of hope? Birds of madness? Who knows? The house of blue leaves is also the crazy apartment in which the action takes place. There's loads of animal imagery, too. Artie's a zookeeper; toward the play's end, in a riot of fecundity, every female animal at the zoo where he works gives birth. And Bananas periodically drops to her knees and makes begging, whimpering puppy noises.
Parts of the play are very funny — I was thoroughly entertained through the first act — and other parts almost profound. But the violence, when it came, wasn't really upsetting, and though I wanted to feel touched by the quiet, would-be-shocking ending that speaks of both desperation and love, I wasn't. At least, not for any longer than I'd linger on a soft-focus TV ad.
I'm not sure how much of this can be blamed on the script and how much on the production. Director Billie McBride's casting is very uneven. The three lead roles are perfectly realized. Kevin Hart is everything poor shlubby Artie should be. Rhonda Brown is all hard-edged flash as Bunny; her energy is appealing, her timing perfect. Ethelyn Friend gets right inside Bananas' head — which must be a pretty awful place to inhabit — acting with depth and conviction, and making the character as heartbreaking as she is funny. There are also convincing performances from Kyle Dean Steffen, as Vietnam vet Ronnie, and Marcus Waterman, who plays bigshot Billy as more befuddled than cocky. But Amy Board's Corrinna Stroller is a one-dimensional parody that belongs more in a musical comedy than a serious play, as does Juliana Black's Little Nun.
The play, which premiered in 1971, definitely feels dated. The playwriting of the 1960s stripped existentialism of its old-world fatalism and gave it a technicolor, new-world gloss, but so many of Guare's devices and preoccupations are over-familiar now: the routine breaking of the fourth wall, the monologues in which nonsense is intended to represent truths deeper than sense, the elements of Europe's theater of the absurd, which include the idea that the characters live in a meaningless world, and that rather than shaping their actions and sentences, they are shaped by them. And the idea that we're all so obsessed by celebrity that we can hardly distinguish it from the media that promotes it has lost a lot of juice by now. How do you mock celebrity mania when the phenomenon is so outsized and cartoonish that it effectively mocks itself?