John Guare's 1971 farce looks gorgeous in the newly minted Mark Taper Forum a venue now as fresh and plush as any in the city. The investment in the building, just now reopened after a year of remodeling, truly honors the work on the stage. This work, however, doesn't quite reciprocate. It does pack fire on many occasions, and that fire is fueled by the energetic interactions between John Pankow and Kate Burton as Artie Shaughnessy a Queens zookeeper who's also an aspiring songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy and his profoundly medicated wife, Bananas. With his thinning hair and mantra that he's too old to be a young talent, Pankow's lean and hyperactive Artie struts the stage and slides on to piano stools at the local Ed Dorado club and in his tawdry living room, with the grin of a used-car salesman and an unfettered desperation to be discovered. Oh, how he yearns to fly away to California, the way his old pal, movie director Billy Einhorm (Diedrich Bader) did. He shows a cavalier and abusive disregard for his wife by flaunting his mistress, Bunny Flingus (Jane Kaczmarek), and making no secret of his plan to have Bananas institutionalized while he and Bunny realize their dreams together in California. Burton's Bananas is this production's centerpiece, mastering the skill of playing madness without showing madness. To the contrary, the world's vainglorious insanity swirls around her, which is Guare's point, while it's clear from her eyes that her task is to keep that lunacy, and the lunatics who run the world, at bay. Walking into this theater, I'd wondered what was the point of reopening the Taper with this college and regional theater hit of more than 30 years ago. Burton answers that question with her face and comportment Bananas has come through shock treatments and must continue, with as much dignity as she can muster, to endure life's torments and insults to her obvious intelligence at the hands of the maniacs who govern her life. The farce is set in 1965, when the pope was visiting New York, yet Burton propels its significance forward to the election cycle of 2008. The fame that almost everyone but Bananas worships is almost beside the point which is, vicious and rabid personal ambition while the world skids off its tracks. I shouldn't bring up Sarah Palin, but why not? Nicholas Martin's opulent production suspends a veneer of dark blue drapery over Artie's grimy Queens apartment (set by David Korins). This frames what's supposed to be an emotionally ribald play with a tempering ornateness, which may be partly responsible for muting the farce that should be literally explosive. Instead, the comedy feels at a remove, more amusing than hysterical, and more sad at play's close than horrific. I also couldn't grasp what the ragtime strains in Philip G. Allen's sound design had to do with any of this. The final reason for the unintended alienation may well be that Martin wasn't able to find the rhythms and textures among the supporting players. One can't really tell in a single glance.
Sundays, 6:30 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8 p.m. Starts: Sept. 14. Continues through Oct. 19, 2008