In ‘House of Blue Leaves,’ that terror and pity, missing in Stiller’s performance, balance out in Edie Falco

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Ben Stiller and Edie Falco perform. ()
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In John Guare's preface to the 1987 Plume edition of his play The House of Blue Leaves, he starts off with the following anecdote:

In 1904, William Dean Howells wrote to Mark Twain: "You always bewilder by your veracity and I fancy you may tell the truth about yourself. But all of it? The Black Truth which we all know of ourselves, in our hearts, not only the whitey brown of the pericardium or the nice whitened truth of the shirt front? Even you won't tell the Black heart's-truth." In what tone of voice did he deliver the last phrase to his friend? Accusingly? Threateningly?

Tone is key to John Guare's weird and wonderful plays, so it is no surprise that he would wonder about the tone in that letter from Howells. Guare writes plays that are alternately shattering and hilarious. If you soft-pedal one to highlight the other then you are not doing John Guare. His plays can be broad and slapstick, but the underbelly of despair and the expression of a "black heart's-truth" is what make them successful. And a play is not a book: It gets life in the staging and the performance, and they're written to do that. You are not supposed to wonder about the tone.

In the present revival at the Walter Kerr Theater, directed by David Cromer, and starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco, the darkness is there, and so are the slapstick elements, but there is a gap between the two; addends without a sum. The second act feels like it is a different play from the first. That is certainly the central challenge of this play. While there is a tone-shift between acts (from a domestic tragicomedy to out-and-out hilarity which then tailspins into brutal tragedy), both serve the total play, and they have to be treated that way. This production fails, and it fails because it is not confident in its tone.

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House of Blue Leaves first opened on Broadway in 1971. It ran for 10 months and then the theatre burned down, an absurd tragic event straight out of a John Guare play. Ten years later, the Berkshire Theatre Festival was beginning its summer run of House of Blue Leaves. John Guare, in the same preface, describes a moment he had around that time:

I leave a Dramatists Guild meeting and round the corner onto Times Square to walk home, and see on the Times Tower, flashing in lights above the Crossroads of the World, the Show Biz Capital of the Universe, the fluorescent neon light bulb wattage blinking at high noon: POPE SHOT. I stop. I count the letters. Again it flashes. Eight little letters - a dopey song runs through my head: 'Eight little letters that simply mean - what will this do to my play???' Writers are all heart.

House of Blue Leaves takes place on Oct. 4, 1965 during Pope Paul VI's famed visit to New York City, to make a speech at the United Nations, give a sermon, and call for peace in Vietnam. A struggling songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy works in a zoo and has big dreams of glory and fame. He sings at open-mike nights, takes care of his schizophrenic wife Bananas, and has gotten involved with an ambitious hot babe he met at the health club, whose name is Bunny. Artie is looking for a way out of the drudgery of taking care of Bananas, and Bunny seems to provide it. Meanwhile, the Pope has come to town and the mania surrounding the visit infiltrates through the dingy walls of Artie's Queens apartment. Artie and Bananas have a son in the military, Ronnie, who has gone AWOL, and he shows up in the middle of the night at their apartment, with a bag full of grenades. He informs us in one of the many to-the-audience monologues in House of Blue Leaves that he is going to blow up the Pope's motorcade.

So you can see why John Guare panicked that day in Times Square when he heard the news.

House of Blue Leaves opened again on Broadway in April 1986, directed by Gregory Mosher, with John Mahoney as Artie, Stockard Channing as Bunny, Swoosie Kurtz as Bananas, and a young Ben Stiller as Ronnie, the AWOL son (it was Stiller's Broadway debut).

I saw the production in 1986, and I saw the revival last week. I was in college when I saw House of Blue Leaves. (By the time I saw it, Christine Baranski had taken over the role of Bunny.) The entire production blew the top of my head off. I remember walking out of the theatre, speechless. The play was dark and sadistic, it was hilarious and manic, it broke your heart, and made you laugh in the next moment. The laughter was the uncomfortable kind, of acute recognition, especially with John Mahoney's performance as Artie, which was played at a white-hot pitch of pathetic desperation, so blatant that you yearned to look away from it. And then there was Ben Stiller as Ronnie, the AWOL son, who only has one scene. He comes into the apartment when no one else is on stage, and delivers a long monologue to the audience about meeting Billy Einhorn, the local kid who had become a hot-shot Hollywood director. Ronnie was convinced that he was the perfect person to play Huckleberry Finn in Einhorn's planned movie of the book, so he came out of his room to meet Einhorn, and immediately started dancing and jumping and leaping, to show his stuff. Ben Stiller knocked that monologue so far out of the park that, to this day, 25 years later, I can remember his blocking specifically. I remember him doing Donald O'Connor leaps off the walls, and tumbling over the couch, as he relived his mortifying moment from his childhood, and the feeling in that Broadway theater was electric. The monologue is hysterical, but it ends on a tragic note, and Stiller played the audience like a violin. We were howling with laughter, as one, and we all quieted down at the end, as the implications of that experience became clear to us, how damaging it was to this young boy. I will never forget it. I remember my companion that night, who ran an acting school, murmuring to me after he finished his monologue, "That kid's gonna be a star."

In the latest revival, as Artie, Ben Stiller seems lost. He has made a career out of playing slightly pathetic guys, with an undercurrent of antisocial rage, which seems like it would be a slam-dunk for Artie Shaughnessy (despite the fact that the guy is an Irish Catholic, through and through). But, as Artie, Stiller uses a gruff voice not at all his own, that seemed to keep him at a distance from the reality of the character. I wondered if he was, unconsciously, doing an imitation of John Mahoney from the production back in 1986. It was difficult not to compare. Artie is a loser. He writes terrible songs (the play opens with him singing one of them to a noticeably unenthusiastic crowd at a local club), and is two-timing his schizophrenic wife (Edie Falco) with a woman who is pushing him to get a divorce pronto (Jennifer Jason Leigh) so they can move to Hollywood, look up Billy Einhorn, and demand that Artie be put on retainer for one of Einhorn's productions.

We've heard Artie's songs. They stink. We already know that his dreams are of the pipe variety. No way will this guy ever be a player.

But this confidence is vouchsafed to the audience. Artie himself needs to believe. And something about Ben Stiller's performance made me think that he doesn't believe in Artie's dreams, that he knows how pathetic the guy is. So the final moment when Artie fully enters his delusions, never (we are to assume) to come out, doesn't pack the punch that John Mahoney's version did.

I felt the audience resisting Ben Stiller in the part. They laughed at everything he said, whether it was funny or not, seeming to need him to be the clown at their birthday party that they expected. Their laughs were insistent, rather than reactive, almost trying to push him where they wanted him to go. In the final harrowing moment, when it becomes clear what Artie is doing, a couple of people around me gasped. This is a good response, obviously, and appropriate, but based on all that had come before, I felt the audience turn on the play in that moment. They had been expecting a Ben Stiller laugh-riot, and instead they were given this? The play is so hilarious that the ending, which any sane person could see coming from a mile away, hurts. Good. It should hurt. But I felt the resentment in that well-dressed crowd. I felt them withhold their approval.

Tragedy, in the old formulation, effects catharsis on the audience. The specific dramatic circumstances of the play have to give way to something that transcends those circumstances and become universal, so that we, out there in the dark, shiver from pity and fear, and walk out full of the implications of the play for ourselves in our own distant individual lives. Arthur Miller tells stories of the first opening of Death of a Salesman, and how, when the curtain fell, nobody clapped. The audience was stunned and silent. The lights came up, and throughout the theatre were men, middle-aged men, sitting in their seats, weeping, completely broken. That is catharsis. But the revival doesn't provide that. There is a universal truth in House of Blue Leaves, the "black heart's truth," even in its oddity and its lunacy, and the play, with its obsession with the culture of celebrity, seems even more prescient now than it did back in 1986.

More than anything else, House of Blue Leaves is about fame: what the desire for fame does to us, and how even those on the periphery feel the need to participate, even if it just means getting a good spot where you can wave to the Pope as he goes by in his motorcade. Perhaps getting close to a celebrity means that some of the magic will rub off on you, as drama is supposed to do and as celebrity on its own almost never really does. Bunny says to Artie at one point: "When famous people go to sleep at night, it's us they dream of, Artie. The famous ones—they're the real people. We're the creatures of their dreams. You're the dream. I'm the dream. We have to be there for the Pope's dream." Bananas crawls across the floor barking like a dog, trying to get the affection of her husband, and says, "I like being animals. You know why? I never heard of a famous animal. Oh, a couple of Lassies—an occasional Trigger—but, by and large, animals weren't meant to be famous."

There are those who see celebrities as targets, powerful symbols who need to be taken down a peg, so that the culture can experience a cathartic bloodletting. We see this every day now, of course: Britney Spears' mental breakdown, or Lindsay Lohan's legal woes. Celebrities represent all that we desire, but because of that they engender vicious resentment. John Hinckley shot President Reagan not for any political reason, but to get the attention of a movie actress. Fame is even more desired now than it was in the 1970s, when the play first opened, and unlike then, unless you were a serial killer or a political assassin, people now want to become famous without having done anything to deserve it. At least Artie wants to be famous for his songs, as terrible as they are. He actually understands that you have to create something in order to be famous. The Pope may be a controversial figure, and hated by some, but he has actually done something to deserve the accolades.

That brings me to another point: The Catholic elephant in the room. John Guare expressed fear that people would turn on his play in the early 80s because of the attempted assassination of the Pope. The Pope-love in House of Blue Leaves is unabashed and innocent. Three wayward nuns who got pushed off the sidewalk break into Artie's apartment to basically hijack his television so they can watch the coverage. These nuns are comic relief, raiding the fridge, cracking open beers (wearing full habits), and shushing everyone in the room (the actual inhabitants of the apartment) so they can go gaga over the Pope in peace.

John Guare was writing about a certain time in Catholic history, following the revolutionary upheavals of Vatican II, which changed the entire world for Catholics. It was a heady hopeful and scary decade, mixed with the social revolution going on in the world at large, old boundaries breaking down, barriers falling away. The church felt a part of it, then. After all, the church could claim John F. Kennedy, the great reformer, for its own. It's no mistake that Vatican II took place in the 1960s. The Pope's visit to New York was a groundbreaking moment, a moment for Catholics to be proud of their faith, and proud of the leader of their faith. House of Blue Leaves presents this in an uncomplicated manner, as part and parcel of the feeling of that particular time, which, more than anything else, makes it feel like a period piece. Now, after almost a decade of revelations about sexual abuse endorsed and covered up by the Church, animosity toward the church is a commonplace. To be Catholic right now is to have a "position" on sex abuse by clergy (for or against? really?) To have an entire play centered on the Pope without one pedophile joke, or one gay priest joke, also seemed jarring to the audience in the Walter Kerr Theatre. They laughed in anticipation at every Catholic mention, waiting for the ba-dum-ching of cynicism to follow ... only it never did, because that's not what John Guare wrote.

While Guare is making a larger point about celebrity, by looping the Pope in with movie stars and rock stars (Bunny wears a huge button on her coat that says I LOVE PAUL, a leftover from the Beatles' visit to New York, but she figures it will serve the same purpose for the "Paul" currently visiting New York), there is no underlying anger in the play about the organization in and of itself. The production did not deal with that inevitable disconnect with the modern audience.

Despite the overall malaise of the production, there is one reason to see it, besides the beautiful set design by Scott Pask, which, with its grimy apartment overshadowed by a crumply fabric sky, captures the dual tone of Guare's play (the dark and the hopeful), and that is Edie Falco's performance as Bananas Shaughnessy. I had heard stories about Falco's power in live performances from friends, but I had never seen her in a play before. As Bananas, the housebound schizophrenic wife, she is both luminous and tragic. From 1999 to 2007, Edie Falco became a household name with her portrayal of Carmela Soprano, the wife of the Mob boss. With her perfect hair and perfect outfits, Falco managed to suggest the deep keen of pain and betrayal in Carmela, a woman who had built her entire life on denial and self-deception. It was a tour de force. Here, as Bananas, she wears a ratty nightgown and sloppy socks, and her emotions spark and fray. You cannot look away from her, even when she sits in a corner in a catatonic state as all hell breaks loose around her. Her emotions seem to be on the outside of her skin.

Bananas is the only one on that stage who accepts her situation, but not without a cost. If you want to discover the right tone for John Guare's difficult play, then just look to the miraculous Edie Falco at any given moment during the revival playing at the Walter Kerr. It's all there in her.