Review: “The House of Blue Leaves” (Raven Theatre)

Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Noah Simon, Sarah Hayes, and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Show: The House of Blue Leaves

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 9

If a trio of beer-obsessed nuns chasing a bomb-wielding Army deserter around a delusional songwriter’s apartment provides few laughs for this reviewer, then it might be time to admit that John Guare’s work is not for me. I have tried and tried to enjoy his plays, but every time I encounter his daffy characters and attempts at criticizing the expectations of mainstream culture, I find myself counting the minutes until curtain call.

That caveat out of the way, I must admit to being somewhat invested in Raven Theatre’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” due to a few strong performances, and one or two moments of inspired physical comedy. That chase sequence may not have rated a smile, but the scramble around an obstacle course of overturned furniture had my mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Our ho-hum hero Artie (Jon Steinhagen) longs for a musical career in 1960’s Hollywood, writing tunes for all the top crooners. In order to forge this new path, his girlfriend Bunny (Sarah Hayes) convinces him to call old friend Billy (Noah Simon), a hot-shot director who might connect him with the necessary big-wigs. There’s only one obstacle standing in the way of the couple’s move to La-La Land: Artie’s mentally ill wife Bananas (Kelli Strickland), who refuses to take her pills or accept her husband’s half-hearted attempts to abandon her. What the nuns, a wayward soldier, and even the Pope have to do with this conflict, I will leave to the imagination.

Guare’s script needs to be meaner if he intends to pull off the growing desperation Artie demonstrates at play’s end. The playwright’s jokes and insults do not cut, he is overly fond of hokey pop culture references, and his characters are not given the necessary time to elicit our sympathy — unless one counts slapdash direct address moments that fill in context without engaging audience emotions. Director Joann Montemurro overcompensates by having many of the actors ham it up onstage, but that pays few dividends. “House of Blue Leaves” is the very definition of safe theatre; it longs to appear dangerous, but its themes are instantly recognizable, while its whack-a-doodle world gives one little to latch on to in the way of concrete stakes.

The saving grace lies in Steinhagen’s sweaty performance. The audience cares about Artie only because the actor underplays all his biggest complaints. Steinhagen is quieter than any of the men and women he shares the stage with, and that is how it should be. A viscerally angry Artie would not be surprising, nor would we chuckle when an obnoxious Artie played his signature mediocre song over and over again in a mock audition. A milquetoast schlub in a room full of farcical nimrods will grab attention. Our song and dance man is not only an accomplished Chicago playwright (“Blizzard ‘67” being a personal favorite of mine), but he is a smart actor, winning our sympathy by confidently doing a lot with little fanfare.

Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.
Kelli Strickland and Jon Steinhagen/Photo: Tom McGrath.

Strickland’s turn lies on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Her Bananas is a human disaster, whose pain may be dulled by medication, but it never fully leaves her. Strickland shuffles from place to place in the apartment, always laser-focused on thwarting Artie’s plans, and her loneliness emanates out to the viewer. Her direct address moment actually works in performance, because Guare sympathizes with her. But he also hampers the lady of the house. Bananas’ tantrums and play-acting as a puppy betray the character’s blend of absurdism and kooky Neil Simon caricature. This is not a welcome concoction, because her breakdowns have absolutely no impact on the escalating comedic proceedings whatsoever. At least Strickland pulls a sense of urgency into the farcical moments of the play. That is desperately needed.

The overstuffed set (designed by Merje Veski, with props by Mary O’Dowd) provides ample opportunity for engaging bits of comedic business. There is the aforementioned chase, generated with abandon by fight choreographer David Woolley, as well as the ping-ponging between kitchen and living room executed by an excitable Hayes. And I have to admit, Strickland’s sitting up for a pet on the head became endearing towards the end of the production.

So the show is not, by any means, a total loss. The actors do what they can with a wobbly play, though the ending is a true head-scratcher, given the lack of investment that’s come before. Do with that what you will. I plan to avoid Guare’s work in the future.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Weak script does not stifle strong performances in revival.

RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”