‘The House of Blue Leaves” is a tour de force theater piece. The award-winning play by John Guare takes the audience on a roller-coaster ride through comedy, lurking tragedy, farce and social commentary. It’s a bumpy ride, fueled with surprises and laced with satire and irony as it skids into unexpected turns. Director Jill Turnbow says she has wanted to direct the play ever since she saw it decades ago, and she has made the most of her opportunity with San Luis Obispo Little Theatre. Because the play has so many facets, a director can make a difference in its tone. Turnbow has a natural talent for comedy, and the comic elements in the play are so well played in this production that the pivotal serious moments are made even more stunning.
Her cast is outstanding. David Norum plays Artie Schaughnessy, a New York zookeeper who dreams of fame and fortune as a singer-songwriter. We first meet him as he plays the keyboard and sings one of his songs. (He’s no Neil Diamond.) As the play begins he has returned from a performance at amateur night at a bar. As he snores on the couch, his girlfriend Bunny comes rushing in to remind him that the Pope is coming to New York that day to speak at the U.N. about the Vietnam war, and she is saving him a seat along the procession route.
Patty Thayer is manic and funny as Bunny, who encourages Artie in his songwriting quest and plans for them to go to Hollywood, where Artie’s old friend Billy, a famous screenwriter and director, will make him famous. There’s one problem, Artie’s deranged wife, Bananas (a name Billy affectionately gave her years ago).
Suzy Newman, a fine actor, is touching as Bananas, revealing a core of her former self beneath her unpredictable present. These are the three main characters introduced in the first act — which is the calm before the storm.
Characters in the chaotic second act include Ronnie, son of Artie and Bananas, who is AWOL from the army; Billy the famous screenwriter, his deaf girlfriend, three beer-drinking nuns, a man in white and a military policeman.
This is a story about dreams versus reality — who we would like to be and who we really are, and how we deal with it. The dialogue is fast and natural, peppered with gems
of insight and information. Each character has his or her own style of speaking, creating unique personalities. Moments of breaking through the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience add a more personal connection.
Norum is excellent as Artie, refusing to accept his reality — a zookeeper with a mentally ill wife — as he lives in his imagined future as a celebrity. Although you want to shake him awake, you can’t help but feel sorry for him. He’s an everyman who wants to be somebody.
Artie’s son Ronnie is played well by John Carroll. He doesn’t have a large role, but it’s a vital one. Ronnie, like his father, wants to be recognized. He has been put down by his dad as he was growing up, and now by his sergeant. Ronnie describes his feelings in a moving monologue as he tells of a traumatic incident as a child. He has decided to make the world acknowledge him.
Thayer, as Bunny, Artie’s ambitious girlfriend, has the most amusing role, and she soars through it with some of the best lines. Her seemingly air-headed persona hides her own dream.
The most demanding role is that of Bananas, who lives in limbo between the torments of her inner and outer existence. Newman portrays her with a combination of naivete and high drama that expresses Bananas’ frustration with her predicament and inspires the audience’s sympathy.
Bob Larsen plays Billy, the man that Artie sees as the ticket to making his dream come true, and Alicia Klein is his girlfriend. They come from the City of Angels full of surprises.
This is a masterfully written play to begin with, and the Little Theatre cast takes it from amusing to gripping, to even more.