The House of Blue Leaves, at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** 1/2 out of ****
How fitting that Ben Stiller's character in the Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves is a zookeeper because this is one wild story: turbulent, messy, emotional - and hilarious.
The House of Blue Leaves takes place on Oct. 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City. It was the first trip to the United States by a reigning pope and occurred at a time when the war in Vietnam was escalating.
This isn't an easy play to love and it may not be for everyone - some of the jokes are dated and some aspects of the plot might be considered in poor taste. But the 1960s are my favorite decade and I enjoyed every dark and quirky moment.
Stiller, more low-key here than in some of his movies, is sympathetic as Artie Shaugnessy, a would-be songwriter who dreams of leaving behind his drab life in Queens for fame and fortune in Hollywood. Scott Pask's terrific design for the Shaughnessy apartment - shabby and cluttered - hits just the right note.
Artie is egged on by his downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus, a wacky and delightful Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wants to marry him and head for California. I can see why he's attracted to her: she's young and cute and eager and she feeds his ego.
Artie and Bunny pin their hopes for success on a leg up from Artie's childhood friend Billy Einhorn, played by Thomas Sadoski, who's become a hotshot director. A glamorous Alison Pill plays Corrinna, Billy's movie-star fiancee.
The only problem is Artie has a wife - the schizophrenic Bananas, played by one of my favorite actresses, Edie Falco. I love her from The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie and it was a joy to see her onstage - so expressive as a sad, bewildered woman who knows her husband wants to commit her to a mental institution.
I know none of this sounds especially funny but it is. I laughed - a lot. Playwright John Guare walks that fine line between comedy and tragedy brilliantly.
What he does is twofold: he explores Americans' obsession with celebrity and also looks at how our dreams for the future can fade into a harsh reality. Sometimes it's absurd but a lot of it rang true to life for me.
Artie's hapless son Ronnie, played by Christoper Abbott, is a GI headed for Southeast Asia who yearns for a moment in the spotlight. A trio of very funny nuns - Mary Beth Hurt, Halley Feiffer and Susan Bennett - end up in Artie's house watching the pope on TV.
Bunny is just as excited at the prospect of catching a glimpse of the papal motorcade as she is at meeting a movie star. (At one point she sports a giant "I Love Paul" button left over from The Beatles' first visit to America.)
Director David Cromer, whose work I admired in Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs, handles the comical, slapstick, scenes so well. The first act especially moved along briskly.
But Cromer understands that often, humor masks other emotions. He slows down to give the characters time to tell their stories. Ronnie and Bananas are especially poignant. They reminded me of those moments in life when you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Stiller's character doesn't get the big laughs in this agitated household. It's a nuanced performance that reminded me of the quote from Thoreau: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Coincidentally, Stiller portrayed Ronnie in the original 1986 Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves. His mother, Anne Meara, was Bunny in the off-Broadway cast when the play premiered in 1971.
The hardest thing for a writer is to know when to stop and Guare ends The House of Blue Leaves so well. It was a startling moment but afterward, I understood it perfectly.