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The Slapstick Museum 

Despite strong acting and stylish costumes, Berkeley Rep's 1968 comedy shows its age

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
The House of Blue Leaves belongs to a species of American playwriting I'll call Midcentury Slapstick, which involves layer upon layer of everyday family bickering and impossible sitcom antics, all stacked on some pealike point about the world at large. The formula goes like this: The characters have a quarrel that feels painfully niggling and familiar for the audience. Then Joan of Arc comes to the door, or behind everyone's back a seemingly dead body gets stuffed into a trunk, or nuns climb in through the window. Just when things get really out of hand -- nuns jumping on the bed while Joan of Arc chases the psychiatrist, who was hiding in the closet and wishes he'd never met these people -- something happens from the outside, political world to bring the cast and the audience back to reality.

I have no idea why this formula feels dated. It could work now, but it seems to belong to a time when mainstream America moved away from the hilarious cocktail optimism of the early '60s into the wilderness of Vietnam. Now, instead of slapstick, the fashion is for sweeping "political fantasias" like Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History or Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, which look so sophisticated on the surface that the old style of play comes across like an episode of Laverne & Shirley.

The Berkeley Rep is game for both styles. After a hugely successful run of Homebody/Kabul last summer, the Rep has opened its new season with The House of Blue Leaves, a comedy about fame and Vietnam from 1968 that became "one of the defining stories of its era" (according to the press release) after its first production in 1971. Opening night was scheduled for Sept. 11 (missed by two nights because of a cast change). The idea was to suggest, obliquely, that we may be moving from the hilarious cocktail optimism of the '90s into another wilderness of war.

Artie Shaughnessy is a New York zookeeper who lives with his crazy wife, Bananas, but wants to escape with his girlfriend to the clear and palmy weather of Southern California. His girlfriend, Bunny Flingus, likes to sing, and Artie plays piano; they have big, vague dreams about Hollywood. While Artie tries to think of a tactful way to pack Bananas off to a bucolic funny farm (where the trees appear to have blue leaves), Pope John VI parades through Queens, on his way to address the U.N. about Vietnam. The year is 1965. Artie's son, Ronnie, is AWOL from the military, and his secret plan is to assassinate the pope with a bomb. Nuns arrive through the window, asking to watch the pope's procession on TV; things get cleverly complicated; and the upshot is that Artie never makes it to Hollywood.

John Guare's script holds up as good comedy. His jokes about celebrity obsession are still hilarious, especially the beer-drinking nuns who worship the pope like a movie star. The references to Vietnam are spare but pointed; they've taken on a patina of age but they're neither without context nor confusing. What's clear now in a way that may not have been obvious in 1971, when Blue Leaves won an Obie, is that the ending feels jerry-built, not inevitable so much as imposed. The play might be era-defining, but it ain't timeless.

This shortcoming doesn't keep Barbara Damashek's production from being beautifully performed. Jeri Lynn Cohen, who had 2 1/2 days to step into the role of Bunny Flingus after Marisa Redanty fell ill, is amazing. Without being off-book -- she played script-in-hand on opening night -- Cohen finds a wonderfully crass, plastic-dress-wearing, Queens-accented floozy in herself to sustain the character of Bunny for just over two hours. (Cohen usually does more sensitive and quiet work as a member of Word for Word.) Jarion Monroe is also seamless as Artie, caught between his lingering love for Bananas and Bunny's impatience to get to Hollywood; Rebecca Wisocky is sublime as the sullen, rumpled Bananas, who sometimes rants with a sane woman's outrage and sometimes begs like a dog.

Beaver Bauer's costumes -- especially that plastic dress -- are also spot-on, as usual, and William Bloodgood's cluttered set perfectly sets a mood. He's made Artie's apartment look both hopeful and dismal, with posters of movie stars on the walls, a TV on a battered Radio Flyer, an upright piano with its back to the audience, and piles of papers and books.

What the show lacks is durable drama. Guare wrote a clunky slapstick comedy full of amusing stereotypes, with a tragic finale that feels added to the rest like an afterthought. The tragedy slips easily from the mind, and seeing Blue Leaves now at the Berkeley Rep is more like visiting a museum than like going to see a really memorable play.


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