Outstanding performance highlights Jewel Theatre’s ‘House of Blue Leaves’
There’s a lot going on in the new Jewel Theatre production of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” A visiting Pope, surprise appearances by a Hollywood filmmaker and a famous movie star, a gaggle of comic nuns, spontaneous piano duets, and a bomb-wielding malcontent all figure into the plot that director Susan Myer Silton has tumbling in and out of the play’s single set with farcical speed. Not to mention the thematic cacophony of mid-life disappointment and shattering dreams.
But what stands out amid all the mayhem is Julie James’ transcendent performance as a fragile housewife/mother on the brink of madness. Nicknamed “Bananas,” and force-fed pills to keep her calm, she wanders around in an unhappy daze longing to feel something again—anger, passion, happiness, anything. James plays her sweetly comic at times, in her unexpectedly alert observations, but it’s her wistful, unfettered poignancy that galvanizes our attention throughout, whether or not she’s at the center of the onstage action. Her relative serenity as craziness escalates all around her and not only makes her this production’s only touchstone to recognizable humanity, she’s also the only person onstage the audience ever cares anything about.
Set in 1965, on the day the pope is coming to New York City, the play’s action is staged in the Queens apartment of Artie Shaughnessy (Mike Cymanski), a middle-aged zookeeper and aspiring songwriter still desperately looking for his big break. (“I’m too old to be a young talent,” he keeps exclaiming.) Buoyed by the optimism of his new girlfriend from downstairs, the ferociously ebullient Bunny (Diana Torres Koss), Artie is about to move to L.A. and impose on a childhood friend, now a big-shot Hollywood director, in hopes of breaking into the movies—as soon as he can park his present wife, the wounded, schizophrenic Bananas (James), in the mental institution that gives the play its title.
But the real nuthouse is the Shaughnessy apartment (designed by Mark Hopkins as a nest of homey, middle-class clutter, complete with TV, upright piano, and, yes, kitchen sink), a microcosm for American celebrity-obsessed junk culture, where fame is all that matters. Through these portals traipse wandering starlet Corinna (a diverting Kendall Callaghan), a trio of pope-groupie nuns, Artie’s big, bluff director pal, Billy (Erik Gandolfi), and the Shaughnessys’ angry, Vietnam-bound son, Ronnie (Nat Robinson), who has his own ideas on how to get famous.
Silton gets big, showy comic performances out of her players, punctuated by Artie’s cheesy songs. Musical theater veteran Cymanski plays piano with manic glee, and he and the buoyant Torres Koss carry off all the singing with entertaining chutzpah. All the players act up a storm, but Silton never quite finds an effective balance between slapstick comedy and the life-sized, melancholy heartbreak of Bananas. James’ performance is so grounded in reality, it seems to belong to another play.
Part of the problem is the play itself. Written in 1966, it was first produced off-Broadway in 1971, when the Vietnam War still raged and the country was still in cultural flux. At that time, the notion that we over-idolize the famous was considered pretty radical (remember the scandal that ensued when John Lennon said in 1966 that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus?”), as was Guare’s device of letting onstage characters speak directly to the audience.
But now that these things are commonplace, the play seems like a rather dated period piece. Unfortunately, this production only occasionally conveys the true tragedy of these lives of quiet desperation that would make the material fresh and resonant for a new generation of audiences.
“The House of Blue Leaves” runs until Sept. 25 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz, 425-7506, jeweltheatre.net. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Photo caption: Heaven sent Clockwise from right: Roselyn Hallett as Little Nun, Kathie Kratochvil as Second Nun, Geraldine Byrne as Head Nun and Kendall Callaghan as Corrinna.