Around 1970, it started out as a black comedy, emphasis on the comedy, about a dysfunctional Queens household on the day the pope came to New York in 1965. When the Arizona Theatre Company mounted it in the 1980s, as part of its challenging (and, the fearful claimed, alienating) 21st-anniversary season, the emphasis fell a bit more upon the black than the comedy, although it still provided its share of laughs.
Right now, in the Catalina Players' production, The House of Blue Leaves is seeming less like a comedy than like a bitter fantasy bordering on the surreal, populated by characters who are every bit as troubling as they are amusing.
What a strange place the Shaughnessy household is. Pater familias Artie is carrying on in the living room with his mistress, the aptly named Bunny Flingus, while his sad, schizophrenic wife, the aptly named Bananas, looks on from the confines of her shabby nightgown and housecoat. Artie is a zookeeper yearning to be a big-time songwriter; he and Bunny hope to abandon Bananas in a mental hospital--the "house" of the title, fronted by a tree full of bluebirds, although one doubts that these are the bluebirds of happiness. The plan: Artie will capitalize on his childhood friendship with a successful Hollywood director and get his songs into the movies.
There are a few complications, though. The Shaughnessy son, Ronnie, is home from boot camp. He, like the other members of this household and the rest of New York City, is determined to catch sight of the pope as he travels to the United Nations to speak against the Vietnam War. Artie approves of this, for the pope's influence will surely keep Ronnie from being shipped out. Ronnie, though, has an agenda, and part of it seems to have something to do with having been casually humiliated as a child by the Hollywood director.
That's the setup in the play's first half, progressing as a straightforward, if somewhat odd, comedy. The second half, though, turns into a rampant farce, complete with the arrival of the director, a starlet that nobody realizes is deaf and three nuns climbing in off the Shaughnessys' roof to have a beer while watching the pope on television.
But what used to come off as high farce is now seeming a bit desperate, in terms of the psychological tensions among the characters. Several of these people meet an unhappy end, and that's where the weight of the play has shifted over the years.
Part of that perception, in the case of the current production, has something to do with the small and supportive--but not audibly responsive--audience that attended opening night last week. The three lead actors were playing to crickets during the first act, and that's a shame, because this is where the evening's finest work lay.
Director Leslie J. Miller took over the role of Bananas on two days' notice; on opening night, she wasn't quite off book, but she rarely glanced at the script in her fist (which otherwise served as an almost plausible prop). Miller had the role in hand, not just the script; she ably shifted from distraction to childlike innocence, maintaining a dead gaze that made you wonder if Bananas has any connection to the real world, until she says something that hints that she's saner than her husband believes.
Keith Wick is a largely sympathetic Artie, which has its pluses and minuses. Wick plays down Artie's resentfulness and petty cruelties, emphasizing his few moments of sadness over losing Bananas to mental illness. Autumn Hafenfeld, in her first of what I hope will be many Tucson stage performances, tempers the ditzy role of Bunny with enough worldliness that the character seems more than just a conniving girlfriend.
The trouble begins after intermission. Gary McGaha, a smart young actor, launches the second act with Ronnie's initially comic monologue about his childhood failure to impress the movie director. Ronnie turns out to be nearly as bananas as his mom, but I think McGaha and director Miller reveal a bit too much too soon, running through the monologue at a fairly quick clip full of nervous energy. That's a hint of the trouble to come.
Miller favors hyperactive blocking, which just begins to seem a bit much for the material in Act 1 but never quite becomes distracting. In the second act, however, the busy rhythms go out of whack, and as more and more performers crowd the stage, the latecomers--with the exception of the able Heather Carlson as the starlet--seem uncomfortable and impatient to get through the thing. Even what happens between Artie and Bananas right before the end could use just a few more seconds to unfold.
This is a community theater production, so you can't insist that every detail be spotless. The House of Blue Leaves is, in the end, a worthy and rather brave choice for the Catalina Players; the good and the bad of it are that people who've gotten used to the company's lighter fare may be surprised by the darkness of this discomfiting farce.