Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The House of Blue Leaves, Beck Center

(Robert Ellis as Artie and Juliette Regnier as Bananas.)

Back in 1966, when John Guare wrote The House of Blue Leaves, it stood as a dark and hilarious indictment of America’s obsession with celebrity. In the decades since then, our cultural fixation has only grown—now to the point where there’s a primetime TV show about D-list celebrities jumping off diving platforms.

When reality continually mocks itself, what chance does irony have? Actually a pretty good chance, when a show is as well directed and acted as this version of HOBL at the Beck Center for the Arts.

This is a play that’s chock full o’ nuts. These include. but are not limited to, a Queens zookeeper (Artie) who aspires to be a songwriter in Hollywood, his wife who is nicknamed Bananas (because she is), his AWOL son (Ronnie), and his hot-to-trot girlfriend (Bunny) who stokes his dreams and wants to run away with him. And it’s all happening on the day the Pope is visiting New York City.

It seems like a farce, and often plays like one, but this is a tragedy of substantial proportions. This juxtaposition is where Guare’s genius resides, and where director Russ Borski finds all the right notes to play, unlike his musically challenged protagonist.

Robert Ellis is a near-perfect Artie, glowing with the promise of an impossible career in Lala Land while dealing with his mentally scrambled wife. And Juliette Regnier is simply hypnotizing as Bananas, staring out from under her flat hair and registering a plethora of emotions that can change in a nanosecond. Her Bananas is a fully realized, deeply layered character that gives the production much of its heft.

They are supported by many other fine performances. Carla Petroski is a funny Bunny, mixing her praise of Artie’s compositions with doses of truth that keep him off balance. And Nicholas Chokan, in the small but vital role of Ronnie, jolts the stage with electricity when he appears—crafting a fearsomely psychotic dude who almost makes Travis Bickle seem like a boy scout.

The second act revolves around Artie’s childhood friend, famous film director Billy Einhorn, who shows up after his girlfriend, starlet Corinna Stroller, stopped by the apartment with a gift for Artie. Todd Hancock and Christine Fallon handle these roles with aplomb, as do the three nuns (Patricia Walocko, Hannah Storch and Tali Cornblath) who show up to watch the Pope on TV.

Kudos to Beck for producing this show, which doesn’t come roaring in with huge box office potential. Those who do attend will be well rewarded: this is a captivating and often challenging production with characters you won’t soon forget.

The House of Blue Leaves
Through April 21 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540

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