Dark comedy is a fine art, and it’s easy to miss the mark when attempting to achieve it. Sadly, the Broadway revival of House of Blue Leaves only achieves the first of the two adjetives. Directed by David Cromer, this revival is certainly dark, but it is anything but comedic.
Set on Oct. 4, 1965, when Pope Paul VI visited New York to speak out against the Vietnam War, House of Blue Leaves focuses on Artie Shaughnessy, a zookeeper who dreams of achieving fame as a Hollywood songwriter. Although Artie tends to wild animals at work, his life at home also resembles a zoo. His schizophrenic wife Bananas (a harrowing Edie Falco) has not left their apartment in months and his ambitious girlfriend Bunny (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh) is urging him to leave his wife and move to California with her. His son Ronnie (Christopher Abbott) has gone AWOL from the army. Throw in a few nuns on the loose who are longing to see the Pope and you’ve got Artie’s day in a nutshell.
Cromer, whose Off-Broadway revival of Our Town was a smash success and whose on-Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs was criminally cut short, successfully depicts the chaos and shattered ambitions that make up Artie’s life. The claustrophobic set by Scott Pask, whose angular stage cuts into the audience seats and permits the cast to speak directly to the audience members, assists in achieving just how small Artie’s life is. But the cramped conditions do not leave any room for humor, which this production desperately needs.
A commentary on America’s obsession with celebrity, it is ironic that this production of House of Blue Leaves is filled with film and television stars. Ben Stiller play Artie, after having made his Broadway debut playing Ronnie in the original production. Stiller successfully depicts Artie’s desperation to leave his current life, as well as his equally desperate denial that he is, in fact, a horribly untalented songwriter.
Falco’s performance as Bananas is haunting; her wild, unkempt hair and wide-eyed stare render her delivery of Banana’s disjointed lines truly disturbing. Her desperate need to be loved is truly saddening, especially when she resorts to pretending to be a dog, crawling around the stage and barking. She manages to inspire both sympathy and exasperation.
As Bunny, Leigh gives a strained performance. Instead of being bubbly and charming, she is abrasive and harsh, and she and Stiller have no chemistry together. She is certainly enthusiastic for Artie to pursue is dreams, she is more vulgar than endearing. It is difficult to understand why Artie would want want to uproot his life for her
Abbott is very effective as Ronnie; I found myself wishing he had more time onstage. Thomas Sadoski is fine as Billy Einhorn, Artie’s childhood friend who actually has made it in Hollywood. And Alison Pill is tragically underused as Corrinna Stroller, Billy’s girlfriend. The trio of nuns are played by Mary Beth Hurt, Halley Feiffer and Susan Bennett, all of them highly entertaining.
It is unfortunate that these elements, many of which are successful, do not combine to form a successful performance. Many lines that were clearly intended to be funny fall flat, and the ending of the show, while beautifully staged, does not provide a successful conclusion to the past two hours of chaos and confusion. This house is better left alone than visited.