Bruce Linser’s Artie is comforted by Vanessa Morosco as his girlfriend Bunny while Elena Maria Garcia as his wife Bananas looks on in “The House of Blue Leaves” at Palm Beach Dramaworks. (Samantha Mighdoll / Courtesy)
“The House of Blue Leaves” is the 1971 play that propelled John Guare from promising dramatist into the ranks of major American playwrights.
Guare, who had another big hit with 1990’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” set his breakthrough play in Queens during Pope Paul VI’s history-making first papal visit to the United States on Oct. 4, 1965. Yet as specific as the details of that day and that era are in the script, “The House of Blue Leaves” remains a timeless and thought-provoking black comedy.
An exquisite new Palm Beach Dramaworks production, staged with consummate artistry by director J. Barry Lewis, honors the play’s different styles of comedy, its deep human truths and its undercurrents of tragedy, which swirl around the final moments like a silent tsunami.
Tonally, Lewis and his uniformly excellent cast interpretatively get the most from a challenging play. Thematically, Guare explores stagnating dreams, middle-aged despair and the casual cruelty some people inflict on those they purport to love.
At its core is a love triangle. Artie Shaughnessy (Bruce Linser) makes a living working at the Central Park Zoo, but his true passion is writing songs he believes would be just right for the movies, if only he could get a break.
His agoraphobic wife Bananas (Elena Maria Garcia) has serious mental issues, at one moment acting like a dog, then turning almost catatonic, then cheerfully sharing a memory that reminds Artie of why he fell in love with her.
Artie also has a hot blonde girlfriend, Bunny Flingus (Vanessa Morosco), a woman who concedes she’s lousy in bed but has another ace in the hole: cooking that would bring even a diehard foodie to his knees. Though she and Artie have been having sex since the moment they met, Bunny has been saving the gastronomic side of herself for marriage. And after two years of dating, Bunny is ready to take the relationship to the next level, feeding Artie’s Oscar dreams and plotting to run off with him to Los Angeles, pushing him to divorce the long-suffering Bananas and put her in the nearby loony bin.
Elena Maria Garcia as Bananas and Bruce Linser as Artie prepare for the Pope Paul VI’s first American visit in “The House of Blue Leaves” at Palm Beach Dramaworks. (Samantha Mighdoll / Courtesy)
On this momentous day of the papal visit, life comes into sharp relief inside Artie and Bananas’ well-worn apartment, which happens to be right above Bunny’s.
The couple’s son Ronnie (Austin Carroll) has gone AWOL from Fort Dix, where he’s next in line to be shipped out to Vietnam, and he has come back home plotting to surprise the pope and gain instant notoriety, making him a prototype for a modern domestic terrorist.
A trio of nuns (Elizabeth Dimon, Irene Adjan and Krystal Millie Valdes) barges in through the apartment’s gated window, wanting to watch their leader on Artie’s tiny TV. Actress Corrinna Stroller (Margery Lowe), engaged to Artie’s friend-since-childhood, moviemaker Billy Einhorn (Jim Ballard), stops by to drop off some flowers and say a quick hello on her way to Australia. And finally Billy shows up, after an incomprehensible tragedy.
As he did when he so memorably played the Man in the Chair in the Wick Theatre’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Linser holds the audience in the palm of his hand from his first entrance, when he walks down the aisle, settles behind an onstage piano and nervously yet enthusiastically delivers several of Artie’s not-so-hot songs.
Though he says “I’m too old to be a young talent,” Linser’s Artie wants with every fiber of his being to decamp with Bunny for Hollywood and finally have his shot at grabbing the brass ring. That Linser could stir so much sympathy for a man determined to dump his mentally disabled wife is the result of an emotionally intricate and truly great performance.
As fans of Garcia’s solo show “¡Fuácata!” know, she is one of the most skilled comic actors in South Florida – or anywhere else, for that matter. Her Bananas is real and rich, amusing, canny and heartbreaking. This performance is as good as anything Garcia has ever done, and that’s saying a lot.
Morosco too transcends the harsh qualities of her character to wrap the audience around her little finger. Her Bunny is loud, flashy (costume designer Brian O’Keefe outdoes himself with her look-at-me wardrobe), self-absorbed and openly insulting to Bananas, whose husband she’s about to steal. Even so, she’s irresistible.
Ben Stiller made his stage debut as Ronnie in the play’s 1986 revival, then played Artie in 2011 on Broadway. Carroll’s Ronnie is every bit as unsettling as he assembles an improvised explosive device while describing the way his dad’s pal Billy crushed his childhood dreams.
Victor A. Becker’s set, which features the apartment buildings claustrophobically surrounding the one where Artie, Bananas and Bunny live, attests to Artie’s meager means – the worn-out gray furniture, for instance, has been “repaired” with strips of white tape. The sign for the sketchy El Dorado club where Artie first shares his songs is rendered in red lightbulbs, though the “a” is burned out. At the end of the play, when it means so much more, lighting designer Kirk Bookman finally gives Artie the haunting blue spotlight he asked for at the beginning.
Sound designer Steve Shapiro provides everything from the hoopla of the pope’s visit to the music that speaks to Bananas. O’Keefe lets his mid-‘60s imagination run wild, and he’s equally on point when dressing Bananas in a fancy hand-me-down 1954 frock that makes her look like Mamie Eisenhower.
At last month’s Carbonell Awards, Palm Beach Dramaworks was the big winner among South Florida theater companies, capturing seven of 20 awards. “The House of Blue Leaves” vividly demonstrates that this award-winning company is on a roll.
“The House of Blue Leaves” runs through June 2 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and some Sundays, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Vanessa Morosco as Bunny and Bruce Linser as Artie dream of a future together in “The House of Blue Leaves” at Palm Beach Dramaworks. (Samantha Mighdoll / Courtesy)