House Leaves Audience with a Taste of the Insane
Play Draws Audience in With Acting and Script
by Lauren Campbell

Last week’s production of John Guare’s award-winning play The House of Blue Leaves, directed by senior Joya Colon-Berezin, invited the audience to cry, to laugh and sometimes to fidget uncomfortably.

The action takes place during two frigid days in New York City, 1965. Artie Shaughnessy (senior Mike Lebovitz) is a zoo-keeper with a burning ambition to be a famous songwriter. His dinky, unoriginal melodies seem to impress his girlfriend, Bunny Flingus (sophomore Jill Briana Donnelly), who constantly works on him to contact his moviemaker friend Billy Einhorn (sophomore Aaron Helgeson) so they can elope to California. Artie is held back by his aptly named wife, Bananas (sophomore Hallie Gnatovich), whose severe mental illness requires his reluctantly given care until he can bring himself to put her in an asylum. He describes the hospital as surrounded by trees with blue leaves (actually birds) in order to make it seem palatable, if not intriguing. In the first act, Bunny convinces Artie to call Billy, and then to go out in the cold to see the Pope, who is visiting New York, in order to get his music blessed.

The second act destroys any hope of escape for Artie as his son Ronnie (sophomore Jonah Mitropoulos), AWOL from the army, accidentally blows up Billy’s girlfriend, deaf movie star Corrinna Stroller (sophomore Amy Flanagan) along with two nuns, instead of his intended victim, the Pope. Billy takes Bunny away, leaving Artie alone to face the tattered shreds of his marriage.

Colon-Berezin’s production is charming, if inconsistently effective. A simple apartment set makes excellent use of the small space, with ill-executed sunlight effects the only technical weakness. As the fourth wall is repeatedly broken, making the audience alternatively laugh derisively at and sympathize with the characters. When Bunny mourns that she scored a mere 12 on a Reader’s Digest quiz of sexual prowess, we guffaw and feel relieved that we are not so pathetic. But when Artie says with wonder to Bananas, “Sometimes I miss you so much,” their lost happiness compels us to take them seriously. Colon-Berezin says this tension is central to the meaning; “We’re supposed to walk away saying, ‘I can’t believe I laughed at that,’ and wondering about what is tragedy, and what’s comedy.”

This wonderful ambivalence, as well as the stamina and dramatic skill of the players, sustains our attention throughout the long first act. The cast, guided skillfully by Colon-Berezin, pulls off several impressive performances.

Lebovitz succeeds beautifully in conveying Artie’s alternating feelings of derision, sadness and rage towards Bananas, while he renders Artie’s inconsistent self-confidence believable and endearing. Donnelly gives the most outstanding performance of the show as the cartoonish Bunny. Delivering her lines in a seamless New York accent that manages to be both shrill and beautiful, Donnelly creates an unforgettable caricature of someone we’ve all met before. Bunny has worked in an apparently infinite number of occupations from telephone operator to theatrical furniture store clerk, all of which have taught her worldliness and sophistication. She knows who she is, and we can tell Donnelly does too, as she unites her perfect physicalization with a clear and energetic interpretation.

As the presumably schizophrenic wife Bananas, Gnatovich gives an occasionally brilliant, but too often stagnant performance. Most wonderful when she is devious, as when she throws Bunny’s coat out the door, or blows Bunny’s cover by wickedly describing a dream in which Artie had a mistress, Gnatovich seems to get stuck in an introspective, zombie-like characterization which relies too heavily on clutching hands and an empty stare. Despite this, however, Gnatovich captures the pathos of the despised and wounded Bananas, whose shadows of intelligence and spirit haunt the audience.
Much of the strong work of the first act is sadly muddled by the second. In a chaotic milieu, three bizarre nuns fight with Ronnie for tickets to the Pope’s mass in a farcical chase scene performed in slow motion, under a strobe light. When Billy comes to grieve over the dead movie star (his girlfriend), his racking sobs give way to a cavalier invitation to Bunny to travel the world with him, stopping by L.A. to “drop off Corrinna’s body.” We are left wondering where all the psychological and literary meat of the first act has gone.
Even our faith in the unshakable Bunny is destroyed as she merrily abandons Artie. There is potential power in the escalation of all the problems of the first act into chaos and violence in the second, but the production failed to harness it. Consequently, the dialectic between hilarity and tragedy that makes the play so rich, in the end threatens to capsize its meaning.

Profundity is rescued by Lebovitz when, left alone with Bananas, he conveys heartbreak and desperation simply and directly, first kissing her passionately, then strangling her. In a wrenching culmination of Artie’s unfulfilled desire and rage, that marks the final defeat of Bananas’ love, the play ends powerfully. Despite the collapse of the second half, the marriage of a strong script, often stellar acting and nuanced direction creates a poignant experience.

The House of Blue Leaves invites the viewers to reflect on their place in the spectrum of pain and absurdity.

November 9
November 16

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