Reality Takes A Holiday In Colonial Players' 'Blue Leaves'

DIVERSIONS

Guare's Play Serves Up The Deluded, The Clueless And The Barking Mad

June 04, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

Beware the power of the misbegotten dream. Illusions may be dangerous, but reality can be downright fatal.

Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman found out the hard way. Nobody's ever come up with an uptempo musicalversion of "The Iceman Cometh," either.

John Guare's play, "House of Blue Leaves," a dark, bizarre, jarringly funny, achingly sad play currently at The Colonial Players of Annapolis, explores the fine line between the regenerative and degenerative powers of dreams. It leaves its audience laughed-out, wrung-out and more than a little stunned by its conclusion.

No doubt about it; two hours with Artie Shaughnessy, a zoo-keeper and songwriter, hisaptly named wife, Bananas, and Bunny Flingus, his brash, Brooklyn babe of a girlfriend, makes for one hell of a triangular evening.

Throw in Artie's homicidal son, Ronnie, Artie's childhood-pal-turned-Hollywood-mogul, Bill Einhorn, and Corrinna Stroll, Billy's glamorous, deaf girlfriend, and you have an assortment of the most pathetic bunch of clueless people you can imagine. In the Shaughnessy household, reality has to take a number and wait.

Artie Shaughnessy writes terrible songs and has a life to match. In a last-ditch attempt at happiness, he plans to institutionalize Bananas, win a quickie divorce, marry Bunny and move to Hollywood, where Billy Einhorn's patronage willwin him an Oscar for songwriting.

Only his profound lack of talent and all the countervailing karmic energy of the universe stand in his way.

Fanning the fires of his illusions is the delicious Bunny Flingus, a ne'er-do-well floozy who's worked everywhere and learned precious little in the process. She beds Artie whenever and wherever ("Give your fingers a smack and I'm flat on my back," she says), but strings him along with her culinary talents. She won't cook for him until he marries her. She is thoroughly devoted to Artie -- until a fateful batch of veal in orange sauce allows her to leave him without somuch as a backward glance.

And oh, poor Bananas. Sometimes in control, sometimes barking like a dog, her psychosis makes Artie's life unbearable, so we sympathize with the long-suffering songster. But Bananas fools us. Her moments of lucidity possess a wisdom that dwarfs her husband's schlocky lyrics and Bunny's know-it-all yenting.

While Artie is pumping outcrummy song after crummy song in a desperate attempt to impress a deaf movie star (now there's a metaphor for you),Bananas communicates openly and honestly.

Desperately afraid of pills and possible shock treatments, she says, "I don't mind not feeling as long as I can be in a place where I can remember feeling."

She's also the only one lucid enough to tell Artie he's been ripping off Irving Berlin.

Bananas earns our pity -- when you're treated like a dog its easy to start acting like one -- but by the time of her shocking demise she's also shown herself worthy of respect. In this crew of misfits, that makes her unique.

The others know only how towait for someone else to show up and impart meaning to their lives. They are incapable of doing it for themselves.

The entire play takes place on Oct. 4, 1965, the day of Pope Paul's visit to New York City. (Artie takes his songs to the parade to have them blessed!) Always, the exotic visitor is charged with the task of making life bearable. These folks haven't a clue as to how to do that for themselves.

And when the delusions finally fade, absurdity and farce yield to surprising -- yet inescapable -- violence.

"House of Blue Leaves" islate '60s theater, to be sure. It is excessive at times; the bit with a goofy trio of nuns goes over the top, I think. And you wonder if the author thinks he's being paid by the simile, so overbearingly frequent are the poetic comparisons.

But what a treasure trove of remarkable performances this production is.

Morey Norkin, a veteran localactor, is terrific as Artie. Sympathetic at first, as only a long-suffering nebbish can be, Norkin slowly reveals his character's darkdesperation as Artie's delusions yield to frightening insensitivity and, ultimately, brutality. With Billy's dead girlfriend's body not even cold, there's Artie at the piano insisting that what his old pal really needs is yet another pathetic song to buck him up. His final explosion is almost lyrical in its bitterness.

Ce Ce Newbrough's Bananas is an extraordinary blend of craziness, innocence and profundity. Physically, her entry into psychosis is complete. The shakes, the stops, the starts, the vacant expressions, the vocal cadences all bespeak an actress who knows what she's doing every second she's on stage.

Bananas is never reduced to a cliche, and Newbrough resolutely refuses to let her become a laughing stock. When she sees the nuns and asks Artie if he's brought his work home with him (penguins from the zoo), we laugh more at her clever association than at her nutty mistake.

What a performance.

Anita Gutchick's Bunny is an uptempo howl from the minute she walks onstage to the moment she stiffs Artiefor a better offer. Her recurring theme -- "Hey, I didn't work in a lawyer's office, ski lodge, travel agency, etc. etc. for nothing, youknow" -- gets funnier each time she utters it. Her Brooklynese is state of the art.

Frank Moorman, Joseph Kulp and Patty Hackett roundout the primary set of players, and all of them are excellent as well.

Gremlins in the sound system were extremely distracting Friday evening, as was the unnecessary, endlessly repetitive tape of trafficnoises. In all other respects, production was as slick as the acting.

I might add that playwright John Guare is still very much in theforefront of American theater. His play, "Six Degrees of Separation," was nominated for a 1991 Tony Award.

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