By John Quinn
“The House of Blue Leaves” defies classification. There’s no pigeonhole big enough to hold it. Who Wants Cake? Theatre’s press release describes it as “dark comedy,” but that’s just starters for describing this complex, fluid work. There’s comedy enough, even farce and burlesque, but an undercurrent of tragedy drives the narrative. The combination is both mesmerizing and disturbing.
John Guare’s opus opened off-Broadway in 1971 and won both the Obie Award and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play. But it was written earlier, against the backdrop of simmering war in Vietnam. It is, in fact, set on the day in 1965 that Pope Paul VI arrived in New York City to address the United Nations in a plea for peaceful resolution. While that means the play is performed as a period piece, you would be wrong to label it outdated. The tragedy in Tucson has opened national debates on our treatment of mental illness and the extreme steps one will take to “be someone,” and this piece comments eerily on those themes.
Artie Shaughnessy (Dave Davies) is zoo keeper by day, frustrated song writer by night. Though his “Moon/June/Spoon” lyrics will never win him an Oscar, he dreams of getting a leg up in Hollywood with the help of his childhood friend, big-time director Billy Einhorn (Jamie Richards). There are two flies in Artie’s ointment. His wife, whom we only know as “Bananas,” is schizophrenic. The name alone speaks to the disregard he has for her. He’s taken a mistress – of sorts – the brash Bunny Flingus. Artie’s intent is to institutionalize “Bananas,” get a Mexican divorce and live happily ever after with Bunny in Hollywood. The institution in question is “the house of blue leaves,” so named by Artie.
Ronnie Shaughnessy (Vince Kelly), destined to be serve in Vietnam, is AWOL and in New York. The Bible says “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son,” and this son shares his mother’s insanity and his father’s ambition for fame. He plots to assassinate the Pope. This revelation opening the second act steers the play into a Bizarro World of farce. This peaks with the unlikely arrival (by window, no less) of three nuns who have lost their binoculars and want to watch the Pope on the Shaughnessy’s TV. This is the Who Wants Cake? Company, and it should be no surprise that two of the sisters are played by Joe Bailey and Joe Plambeck – drag nuns, if you will. Holding her own with the “girls” is a feisty Cara Trautman as the “Little Nun” and the trio is a riot. The nonsense is a welcome break from reality.
While this is altogether an outstanding cast, two performances need special mention. Bunny Flingus is a pushy, demanding woman, but Melissa Beckwith manages to soften her while maintaining a “native New Yorker” edge. Lisa Jesswein is remarkable as “Bananas.” Sad, funny and wistful all at the same time, Jesswein has crafted an indelible picture of mental illness. Artie refers to his wife’s “dead face,” yet it’s not dead; behind the empty eyes we see a person trapped, trying to get out. Despite her madness she’s probably saner than anyone around her. While “Bananas” is funny, there is no suggestion that mental illness is funny. Credit goes to director Joe Bailey for that. He really delivers with this show, deftly weaving the comedy and tragedy into a fine tapestry.
‘The House of Blue Leaves’
Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through Jan. 31. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com