‘The House of Blue Leaves’ not as golden as 1986 Broadway smash

The second rialto production of John Guare‘s dark comedy “The House of Blue Leaves” opened Monday to respectful reviews. While most of the critics lauded the performers, they found the overall production lacking. Despite an off-Broadway run in 1971 for which it won the Best American Play prize from the New York Drama Critics Circle, the first Broadway staging of “Blue Leaves” in 1986 contended for Best Play; it lost to “I’m Not Rappaport” by Herb Gardner.

Twenty-five years ago, the stellar cast included Swoosie Kurtz, who won the Featured Play Actress Tony for her portrayal of Bananas, the madcap wife of Artie. As that would-be songwriter, John Mahoney took home the Featured Play Actor prize. Also in the company was Ben Stiller as their wayward son and Stockard Channing, who was a Featured Play Actress nominee for her work as Artie’s mistress Bunny.

Stiller is headlining this new production taking on the part of Artie with Edie Falco as Bananas and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Bunny. Though they all received good notices, director David Cromer was faulted for his staging. As Ben Brantley (New York Times) wondered, “where do you go if your starting point is a dead end? This isn’t a problem that Mr. Cromer solves. For ‘House’ to captivate, its lyricism has to be given fuller rein. Here, even when characters step downstage into spotlights to confide in us, the audience, the effect is of drained, joyless souls speaking to people like themselves; there’s no buoyancy to work against or come down from.”

For Joe Dziemianowicz (New York Daily News), “The mood in John Guare’s 1971 play has more swings than a playground. Its plot trips from comedy to farce to family drama to deadly tragedy. There’s never a dull moment in director David Cromer’s entertaining staging, but that’s not the same as being completely satisfying. A wild and crazy work cries out for extremes, and this starry production at the Walter Kerr is too tame and emotionally mellow for its own good.”

Mark Kennedy (AP) was impressed with the performances, noting that “Stiller, returning to Broadway for the first time since he appeared in this very play in 1986, is indefatigable, even playing the piano and singing for the role of Artie. He manages to put pathos into a character who is, from a distance, very unlovable. He makes Artie’s darkness and naked hunger seem almost understandable. He also beautifully captures the push-pull of a man still in love with his wife and yet pinning for a new, free affair.”

And Elizabeth Vincentelli (New York Post) thought, “Leigh, an expert in high-strung characters, can be like nails on a chalkboard which is exactly right for Bunny. And Falco is heartbreaking when she suggests the awareness that still flickers in Bananas.”

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