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John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves: Renewal at the Mark Taper Forum 

Is it all skin deep?

Monday, Sep 22 2008
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The title of John Guare’s 1971 farce, The House of Blue Leaves, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, refers to a nut house, and a tree outside that contains “blue leaves,” which are really gentle birds. It’s a placating image, meant to pacify an emotionally unbalanced woman named Bananas (Kate Burton), to help keep her emotions contained. Bananas, married to zookeeper-songwriter Artie Shaughnessy (John Pankow), is stuck in their New York apartment. But Artie has other ideas: To fulfill their dreams of getting out of Queens and into Hollywood, Artie and his horrible mistress, Bunny Flingus (Jane Kaczmarek), plan to permanently institutionalize Bananas.

Bananas is the only character in the play who doesn’t fantasize about being a movie star, or part of the fame factory. Among her crimes is to point out to her husband that one of his new melodies is identical to “White Christmas.”

“Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear it?” she yells at him. From Artie’s aggravated reaction, we see how his delusions of talent are among the many causes of his wife’s anguish.

click to enlarge CRAIG SCHWARTZ - Pankow and Burton: A prayer for our theater
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And so Artie and Bunny try to pacify Bananas with talk of those peaceful blue leaves, to ease her toward (and into) the asylum. Meanwhile, nuns appear on the fire escape, seeking a better view of Pope Paul, not to mention Artie’s deranged son, Ronnie (James Immekus), AWOL from the army. They’ve all landed like aliens into the bedlam of New York City on October 4, 1965.

Nicholas Martin’s production arrives as though through a blanket — maybe it’s the ornate dark blue drapery that hangs suspended over David Korins’ deliberately grimy set. Perhaps it’s the way the set’s platforms glide in and out on hydraulics, just to remind us of the show’s budget and the millions of dollars invested in the Taper’s new face-lift.

If you haven’t been driving along our major boulevards, you’ll have missed the street banners proclaiming the Taper’s grand reopening — after two years of dormancy and a $30 million makeover — as “Act 2.” You may have read about the posh new women’s bathroom (with 16 stalls, up from four), the new elevators, the downstairs lounge, the expanded lobby, the floors that were lowered, the walls that were tweaked, the loading doors that were expanded. When Angels in Americawas premiering during “Act 1,” they had to cut the set into little pieces, then rebuild it once they got it through the door — ridiculous for the most prestigious theater in Los Angeles.

The Taper staff are beaming with pride in their new facility, and with good reason. A theater that’s comfortable to operate is almost as important as a theater that’s comfortable to occupy. But along with all the symbolism of an Act 2 comes a difficult question: What is the real purpose of this beautiful theater? Even up close, one can feel the self-imposed distance of Martin’s production. For any number of reasons, the farce is amusing rather than hysterical. The tragedy at the end is more sad than horrific — which is where it needs to land. But that’s not the issue. Some productions find a spark that others don’t. So what? The implications of this production reopening the Taper — and with it, a new era for L.A. theater — are more troubling than the production itself.

The play could still be relevant. The world certainly hasn’t grown any less nutty since 1971, and Burton’s medicated Bananas possesses a placid core through which an occasional feeling sometimes emerges — infantile desperation or a bout of aggression. I’ve been trying to persuade myself that Burton’s lovely performance justifies the staging of this slightly tired comedy, which peaked with its 1986 Broadway revival, featuring Swoosie Kurtz in the role of Bananas.

Wall Street has been teetering on the brink of collapse for reasons that were entirely avoidable, so I can almost believe that The House of Blue Leaves somehow addresses the hypocrisy of such arrogance and the folly of people in charge — crazy people running our world off the tracks, people even crazier than those they call crazy. But, as much as I strain to, I don’t really believe that the play’s lunacy has that kind of timeless resonance. Blue Leavesis really just a pretty good, old play about fame, with a stock brand of nuttiness.

If The House of Blue Leaveshad been set two years later, Artie and Bunny’s dream of going to California could have included attending plays at the Mark Taper Forum. It’s unlikely they would have bothered, because Gordon Davidson was launching the theater with new plays that reflected a clear mission. That wouldn’t have interested the Arties and Bunnys of the world. Those plays, however, set Davidson’s “Act 1” stage for international attention.

That first season of 1967 included two world premieres: Romulus Linney’s The Sorrows of Frederick, and Oliver Hailey’s Who’s Happy Now? Tucked around them was German expressionist Friederich Dürrenmatt’s The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi and the West Coast premiere of John Whiting’s The Devils. Nobody could accuse Davidson of coasting out of the starting gate. The following season, he programmed five plays — again, two were world premieres (A.R. Gurney Jr.’s The Golden Fleece and, somewhat ironically, John Guare’s Muzeeka); a third production was the U.S. premiere of Heinar Kippart’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

That’s five new plays in two seasons — and on just one stage (and only four stalls in the women’s bathroom). From the start, it was clear where Davidson was headed. It was that lucid ambition and purpose that led to the Pulitzer Prizes eventually rolling his way for plays like Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

That kind of clarity and focus has not yet emerged from his successor, Michael Ritchie, who is responsible for programming CTG’s three venues: the Taper, Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters. On all three stages, his fall season will have included only one world premiere, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5: The Musical (see New Reviews), andthat was spun from the movie. Everything else is an importor retread. The degree of risk has been substantially scaled back, and risk is what moves the art forward. (To give credit where it’s due, another new musical, Minsky’s, is scheduled for the Ahmanson in early 2009, and one new play, Richard Montoya’s Palestine, New Mexico, is slated for the Taper’s spring season.)

Ritchie has rescued CTG financially — no easy task. But balancing the books is not the larger part of his task. (That’s what the managing director is for.) He’s shown a striking capacity for the kind of risk-taking that earns or sustains the reputation of a theater beyond shiny new faucets and freshly shampooed carpets. Examples include the premiere of Montoya’s Water & Power on the Taper’s main stage — a new script that was being developed right into previews — and Douglas Steinberg’s Nighthawks. The latter had been sitting around unproduced for years. That didn’t prevent Ritchie from doing it at the Kirk Douglas — his primary reason being that he believed in it, the best reason for doing anything in the theater. The man is obviously no coward. That’s why the symbolism of reopening the Taper with The House of Blue Leaves is so disheartening. And why it arouses qualms that the Taper is sliding into the fiscal security of what the French call “Boulevard Theater” — with the majority of works flirting with difficult ideas but really tilting to feed complacency rather than submitting a serious response to our troubled times. What’s to become of the Taper if the Wall Street “repair” so tightens lines of credit that arts benefactors hold on to more of their cash? If the current season is so bereft of risk-taking and its accompanying commitment to “further advance the art of theater,” what will the lineup look like two years from now?

There’s no shortage of feisty, impudent and even brilliant ideas on our own smaller stages, plays by the likes of our own Tom Jacobson (whose gentle The Friendly Hour just opened at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre), or San Francisco scribe Adriano Shaplin, whose perverse military comedy Pugilist Specialist is being presented at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre by VS. Theatre Company. CTG’s mission also states a commitment to work with local companies. Perhaps it’s time for CTG to make good, or better, on that commitment, to absorb the edgier aesthetic of our own braver companies. Without it, I fear that five years from now, we’re all going to be sitting in the Taper as though in a nut-house garden, gazing up at blue leaves.

 

THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES | By JOHN GUARE, presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | (213) 628-2772 | Through October 19

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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