And I guess that’s what this play is about more than anything else: humiliation. Everyone in the play is constantly being humiliated by their dreams, their loves, their wants, their best parts. People have criticized the play for being cruel or unfeeling.
I don’t think any play from the Oresteia on down has ever reached the cruelty of the smallest moments in our lives, what we have done to others, what others have done to us. I’m not interested so much in how people survive as in how they avoid humiliation. Chekhov says we must never humiliate one another, and I think avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.
--John Guare, from the original program notes for The House of Blue Leaves, 1971, reprinted in the current production program
Saturday I saw a production of House Of Blue Leaves at the Mark Taper Forum. I really love this play and this production somehow fails it for me. I’m feeling pushed to write a little about the play itself, and perhaps why I respond to it; I think it’s a great American tragedy, writ small and comic. After all, the image of the title is a tree made of birds that fly away at a moments notice; a shade giving tree under which, if you remain long enough, you’ll be shit on and the leaves fly away to leave you exposed.
**If you don’t know the play, then be aware there are some major spoilers coming.**
It is 1965. The play concerns Artie, a zookeeper and would-be songwriter. A prologue has Artie playing a few of his songs, all about hope and love, but written in clunky, work-a-day rhyming prose. His biggest hope is the song “Where’s the Devil in Evelyn” with the chorus “Where’s the Devil in Evelyn/What’s it doing in Angela’s Eyes?”, which manages to be not quite clever and not quite comprehensible at the same time. After the prologue, Artie is greeted by Bunny, a downstairs neighbor with whom he is having an affair, waking him at 5 AM to see the Pope drive through Jackson Heights Queens. A door opens and we realize that Artie is already married, to the aptly named Bananas. They have a son, and Artie, with his dreams of song writing and a supportive mistress, plans to escape to Los Angeles and rekindle his friendship with a classmate, Billy, who has become a world famous director.
The plot is complicated, as befits a farce, with the son coming home from basic training to blow up the Pope, three nuns arriving to warm up and watch the Pontiff on television, the actress/fiancée of the director stopping by on her way to an ear operation in Australia, and, finally, after the actress’ demise from the bomb, the famous director himself arriving on the scene. And, in a seeming left turn, Bunny leaves with the director, and Artie strangles Bananas once they’re left alone.
Guare writes that the impetus for finishing the play was mixing Strindberg’s Dance of Death and Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, tragedy with farce. The play is full of farcical elements: doors slamming, chases, explosions, characters running in and out at top speed, people singing for no reason. Underneath lies tragedy—Banana’s loss of sanity, Artie’s feeling of failure, their son’s failure in the army, and earlier to charm Billy into giving him a role as Huck Finn, the starlet’s hearing loss, the anger of the nuns at missing the pope.
I was aware in this production, as sometimes becomes apparent when the seams show a little more, just how challenging it is to make this play work extraordinarily well ( I have a whole theory of playwrighting that big risks mean big payoffs—see Williams, Chekhov, O’Neill—but it means the can be not so great if not done well). It’s certainly entertaining, and even a mediocre production will be that, but it to make it stun as a tragedy it needs to be seamless. Bananas is tragedy, Bunny is farce (with a name like Bunny Flingus, what else could she be), but scratch either one and there is a little of the other underneath. Artie, on the other hand, needs to straddle both sides. He desperately wants to be in a farce—fun, silliness, happy endings, but he’s stuck in a tragedy. And for this play to work, I think, those moments need to pop up to remind us what’s simmering under it all. The text is full of them; Artie says to Bunny “sometimes I miss you so much” more than once, and it’s those moments that strike at the heart, and prepare for what’s coming. His story about the asylum where he wants to commit Bananas includes a tree with beautiful blue leaves where she can watch the birds and be in nature, but the act that causes him to call the hospital to commit her is one of absolute sanity: she calls him on his lack of talent as a songwriter. She asks him to play “I love you so I keep dreaming”, a song he wrote years ago, and then immediately to play “White Christmas”. It’s the same tune. It’s cruel of her to do, and he answers with the cruelty of committing her. It’s a devastating moment.
Jane Kaczmarek (who went to Yale with Kate Burton—who knew?) would seem to be a great Bunny. She’s physically tall, with a big presence. Unfortunately, she screams through the role. She’s one level, and that level is strident. A lot of the jokes are lost, which is surprising considering her comedy background. Mostly, my throat hurt a bit watching her, and I was aware of her working very hard. Some of the fail safe jokes landed “Orion. The Irish constellation” never fails to get a laugh. But there wasn’t a connection. Even though I never saw her, I can only imagine how great Anne Meara must have been in the original, as I’m sure Stockard Channing was in the last Broadway revival. What they have, though, as actresses, is access to a deep well of feeling that underscores desperation and a drive to survive. Looked at another way, a single, loose woman who has had as many jobs as boyfriends, living alone in Queens in 1965--she’s holding on to Artie as her last big chance. There is also a cruelty and selfishness in the role evident when encouraging Artie to commit Bananas, and screaming that Bananas has poison fumes coming out of her. Though I got some need to keep everything afloat, it mostly came across as screaming. The entire role was performed in capital letters with no punctuation, mostly apparent in the opening monologue, which is peppered with character jokes that didn’t quite land. I’m sure she’s very capable, and I think she could’ve knocked this out of the park, but it seems like she only got the direction “faster, louder, funnier” and I don’t think that served her here.
*Side note: the production of A Chorus Line here was super fast as well, and I’m wondering if the new vogue is to rush through plays as quickly as possible, as if we don’t have the patience to sit through them. I’m seeing it a lot. There certainly is slowness and wallowing to watch out for, but we’ll be with it if it’s real. Clunk, clunk, off soap box*
John Pankow, perhaps best known for “Mad about You”, plays Artie. I liked his performance but I didn’t love it. I think it’s a hard role, definitely, and he’s good. I got the sadness, and the drive, the anger and frustration, and was touched by his missing the relationship with Bananas. Certainly, that’s the most frustrating and tragic part of the role. While still running after his dream (several times he yells “I’m too old to be a young talent”), he has to pick up the pieces of a lost relationship with a woman who has completely snapped. I think perhaps here, too, I was thinking of John Mahoney (and what Harold Gould must have been before him), an actor who can smile, sell you something, but underneath there is always something—sadness, menace, fear. I missed that. I think Pankow is a good actor, and he did a creditable job—I guess I just missed that extra flash each time it sank in what was happening in his life. And not like I need it illustrated, it’s just that since the whole play leads to a horrible act of violence as well as a possible psychic snap, I think flashes of what he is capable of earlier would’ve made a difference. We even hear it from his son—how difficult he is to live with. Since he’s a charmer that’s not a side he shows to everyone, perhaps only to his family. And it’s that we need to see bits of—not maniacal, just the feeling that would drive the act at the end. Once again, I think he has it in him, but it just wasn’t quite there.
Kate Burton does well by Bananas, I think. She gets some good laughs, and does what the role calls for most—allow us to care for her, but also question if she is sane or not. Sometimes she’s the most sane person in the play, and we are questioning Artie’s decision to commit her, and we see her ferocity and clarity when she calls him on his lack of talent; the next moment we are hearing about her standing in the snow for 12 hours or stopping to pick up Cardinal Spellman, Bo Hope, LBJ, and Jackie O who are all standing on different corners of 42nd street, and who she tries to push into her car. She calls them her friends, and says she knows more about them than herself. Once again, I would’ve loved to have seen Katherine Helmond in the original production, since women on the edge of sanity who also seem like the smartest in the room were her specialty. I did see Swoosie Kurtz in the PBS production of the revival, who is no slouch in that character department, either, and thought she was brilliant. Perhaps I keep thinking of that, too.
Whether Bananas is sane or not, and ultimately the feeling of what it would look like to live with a great love who now is someone else, haunts this play. Even larger, the idea of self, and who we are if we’re not famous—Jackie O, the Pope, Bob Hope, President Johnson, Cardinal Spellman, even Sandra Dee—constantly nags at the characters. The idea of fame is one that pushes everyone, and it’s perhaps what makes the play feel still topical, since our particular moment is even more obsessed with fame and being seen than people were in 1965. Billy, the famous director, finally arrives on the scene in the third act (or second part of Act II), and delivers the nail in the coffin—that Artie is who he makes movies for, and therefore needs to stay in his apartment in Queens, a zookeeper, married to Bananas, for Billy to keep working. Billy is played in this revival by Diedrich Bader, of Drew Carey fame. He’s funny, and he’s got a warm presence. Unfortunately, every line was delivered with quotes around it. It wasn’t a character, really, but someone the actor was making fun of. He is kind of a boob, but he does take himself seriously, and that’s what would make him even more ridiculous.
There are more people—the son with his one monologue, and the three nuns, as well as the starlet, Corinna Stroller, and I thought for the most part they were funny and capable. The play just rests for the most part, on the three main characters.
The final moment is difficult to pull off. Bananas comes up to Artie, telling him they’re alone again now, and it will be just the two of them. Artie’s dreams of going to Los Angeles to live with Billy have been destroyed, and Bunny is leaving with Billy. Bananas pretends she’s a dog, on all fours, whimpering to Artie and nudging his leg. He kisses her, and then begins to strangle her. She dies. He walks over the body, and we’re in the club we were in at the beginning, in a blue spot. It’s a Mama Rose moment; we’re witnessing a psychic break. The moment didn’t work for me in this revival—I had kind of forgotten that it was happening before it did, and it felt out of left field. Once again, I think I’ll put this on the director. It felt like it needed a few more distinct moments. Artie kisses Bananas deeply, and then starts to strangle her. If I remember, the other versions I saw she realizes what he’s doing, grabs his hands, struggles and then dies. In this version it was muddy. The people behind us asked if he strangled her. I think by choosing to have the strangulation happen on the floor rather than with the two of them both on their knees, the tension dissipated. (And with the audience above at the Taper, seeing Burton’s white knee pads when she was laying on the floor didn’t help). Also, that moment of realization on her part makes it tragedy. I once had a professor say that the difference between tragedy and comedy is the realization-- if you get hit by a bus it’s pathetic; if you look up and say “oh my god, I’m going to get hit by a bus” it’s tragic. Bananas needs that moment. And we need to see Artie see it as well. By muddying it up, the payoff for the whole piece, the sadness and the loss, the reality of their marriage, his psychic break was obscured. I found myself reacting to an ending that didn’t happen. I found it emotionally devastating how it must have been for him to live with a woman who was gone. To have to say to her “I miss you so much” and not have her register. All Artie wanted was to be seen. The tragedy was the loss of the mind, and then his own killing, of the one woman who could.
I would still suggest seeing it. It’s a great play, and this production is certainly not bad. It’s worth seeing Kate Burton, and it’s worth seeing the show performed. And who knows? In theater things change. There will be some mellowing and growing, and by the beginning of October it could be a whole different play. I may have to go again.