The House of Blue Leaves

By John Guare

Directed by JoAnn Montemurro

Produced by Raven Theatre, Chicago.

After 45 Years, Guare’s Comedy is Still Funny and Still Strange

In 1971, John Guare’s dark farce The House of Blue Leaves launched his career by establishing him as a writer who defies genres and has a wicked sense of humor. Now, in 2016, when the farce has receded from its once-prominent position in the theatrical landscape, Guare’s story of a husband undergoing a mid-life crises while in thrall to his mentally ill wife and a group of invasive nuns awaiting the arrival of the pope looks even stranger. But in Raven’s production, under the direction of co-artistic director JoAnn Montemurro, every cackle rings true, and the horror exposed at the heart of the genre is all the more disturbing for being buried under such a goofy exterior.

Sarah Hayes (Bunny) and Jon Steinhagen (Artie). Photos by Tom McGrath

Artie Shaughnessy (Jon Steinhagen) leads a miserable existence, and he knows it. At the top of the play, he attempts to dazzle a nightclub audience with his original ragtime compositions, which were dated even in 1965, and does not even draw enough attention to be heckled. (These songs are Guare’s own.) He shuffles his way home, where his mistress, Bunny (Sarah Hayes), excitedly prepares him for the landing of Paul VI in New York later that day (the first papal visit to the United States). Artie has no interest, but Bunny hopes seeing the pope for a split second will be enough to bless their wedding. Artie’s current wife, Bananas (Kelli Strickland), is, well, bananas. Prone to mood swings, paranoia, agoraphobia, and episodes of disassociation, Bananas can’t argue against Artie wanting to be free of her, but she wishes she could get a little more respect from Bunny. Her greatest hope is that the pope’s speech to the United Nations will put a stop to the Vietnam War, which their son, Ronnie (Derek Herman) has been drafted into.

Sarah Hayes (Bunny), Jon Steinhagen (Artie), and Kelli Strickland (Bananas)

Speaking of whom, early in the play, while Artie is sleeping, we see someone we later deduce to be Ronnie breaking in to the apartment, and concealing himself. Amid all the relationship drama in the first act, we almost forget he’s lurking somewhere—almost. As the day goes on, Artie vows to call his childhood friend, Billy (Noah Simon), who is now a major Hollywood producer, to ask for a gig, and to commit Bananas to a hospital which he describes as the titular house with blue leaves. But then, things get weird. The nuns, having failed to catch a glimpse of the pope, invite themselves in and demand much in the way of charity. Another surprise guest, connected to Billy, won’t admit she’s deaf, despite how desperately Artie implores her for help. And Ronnie has something terrible planned.

Kristen Williams (Head nun), Sarah Hayes (Bunny), Shariba Rivers (Second nun), Jen Short (Corrinna Stroller), and Sophia Menendian (Little nun).

Prior to the play, audiences may marvel at Ray Toler’s scenic design and Mary O’Dowd’s set dressing. The chaotic home contains not only a treasure trove of bric-a-brac, but poignant clues about its occupants, such as Artie’s sleeping bag on the couch. Jon Steinhagen also establishes early on Artie’s sad-sack persona with his lackluster concert at the bar. It’s good-bad acting at its finest. But he and Sarah Hayes manage to be cute together, with Bunny excitedly babbling poetic misinformation, and Artie humoring her in hopes that she’ll cook him breakfast. (She refuses until they’re married.) The eight actors who suddenly show up in the second act have more exaggerated, cartoonish characters to play, but they do so with judiciously applied high energy. In no time, the Shaughnessy house truly becomes a madhouse.

Noah Simon (Billy Einhorn), Sarah Hayes (Bunny), and Jon Steinhagen (Artie)

JoAnn Monemurro has a very delicate balance to maintain, between keeping the tension high, the characters’ struggles with mental illness significant, and the ridiculousness hilarious. However, she has a potent ally in Kelli Strickland as Bananas. She’s the only character who doesn’t have to be stylized by the conventions of farce, which allows her moments that are serious or bitterly sardonic, as well as manic absurdity. After all, there’s nothing inherently funny about an insane woman who desperately wants to save her son from war; it’s all in the presentation. In some ways, the play is hard to separate from its context of having been written near the end of the Vietnam era, and looking back on its beginning. The characters are desperate for a mystical savior, and when their hopes are dashed, they descend into violent chaos. But even with a little cultural distance, from both its commentary and the type of theatre it was written to send-up, The House of Blue Leaves is engrossing. First-time viewers should also be aware that it is full of surprises.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed April 26, 2016

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The House of Blue Leaves’ page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark St, Chicago. Tickets are $42, with discounts for online purchases, seniors, students, teacher, and military. To order, call 773-338-2177 or visit raventheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through June 18. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.