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always is fun and John Guares The House of Blue Leaves, newly opened at
Berkeley Rep, is a three-ring lollapalooza. Youve got your hero, Artie (Jarion
Monroe), a wannabe songwriter who feeds the animals at the zoo while hes waiting for
fame to knock on the door. Hes the sad clown. Not only does he write lousy songs but
nobody wants to listen to them. Nevertheless, Artie dreams on.
His wife, Bananas (a wacky, wistful, wonderful Rebecca Wisocky), who really lives up to her name, is an antic clown but, locked in her delusions, her emotions controlled by pills, she can be pretty sad too. Then theres Bunny, Arties micro-managing mistress, played in a yeoman performance and a fake New York accent by last-minute substitute Jeri Lynn Cohen. Bunny wants Artie to lock Bananas up in the loony bin, run off to California with her and peddle his songs to a big Hollywood producer who was his childhood friend. She seduces him with the promise of her own brand of haute cuisine. But shes saving it for after the wedding day. She doesnt balk at sleeping with him but she wont cook him a morsel until then.
Even more clowns pile out of the Volkswagen in Act Two. The Pope is visiting New York amid great hoopla and Arties son Ronnie (Adam Ludwig) has gone AWOL from the Army in order to assassinate him, thereby gaining his own five minutes of fame. Then three nuns beg shelter from the cold in order to watch the proceedings on Arties television set. A hearing-impaired Hollywood starlet, fiancee to the aforementioned producer, arrives, bearing gifts of bourbon and flowers. Shes on her way to Australia to have an ear operation but her plans go awry from the moment Bananas mistakenly gulps down her hearing aid transistors, thinking they are tranquilizers.
Finally, near the end, the producer himself, the famous Billy Einhorn (a suave Bill Geissinger) descends from the sky like a Renaissance deus ex machina to put everything right. Only he takes an airplane from California. And he really does fix almost everything for almost everybody -- except Artie and Bananas who remain teetering on the high wire of obscurity. And theres no safety net.
So, whats it all about? The Sixties, for one thing, with its obsession with celebrity (pictures of James Dean, Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and J.F.K. serve as wallpaper in William Bloodgoods pop art set). And dreams, both waking and sleeping. When famous people sleep at night, its us they dream of, confides the star-struck Bunny. Artie has a recurrent dream in which his son is the Pope and Bananas dreams that she meets Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Cardinal Spellman in Times Square, offers them a ride and ends up getting beaten up by them.
And its about the Viet Nam War, just enough to resonate with audiences who, 37 years later, are facing the possibility of another war in a far-off land.
Its about obscurity and the longing to be somebody that is the American Dream and, as such, foreshadows a much later play by Guare, Six Degrees of Separation. Its about some serious stuff, cloaked in slapstick farce. Deftly directed by Barbara Damashek (Quilters), and performed by an excellent cast, it doesnt stop moving for a moment. Its only when you step out into the night, after all the zaniness has stopped, that you begin to ponder the meaning. You may get a chill of recognition. The way we were may be the way we still are.
Reviewed in Berkeley,September 17, 2002 - Suzanne Weiss