The Beck Center currently has on its main stage the absurd and touching “House of Blue Leaves” by John Guare. While the play won’t appeal to everyone, those who favor it tend to be extreme in their praise. I am one of those, as is director Russ Borski.
The play is set in New York on the day that the pope is coming to visit the United Nations calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. Artie is a zookeeper and aspiring songwriter. His wife, Bananas, is off her rocker, sometimes paranoid, sometimes acting like a dog. Artie has dreams of success for his son Ronnie. His own ambition is fueled by the lady who lives below him – his mistress, Bunnie.
Act 1 introduces us to all of this, starting with Artie’s pathetic presentation of his songs at a local club, and Bunnie’s exuberance with having the pope bless the songs as he passes her in a parade to the U.N. Robert Ellis is a haggard but likable Artie. Juliette Regnier’s Bananas is a petite long-suffering wife and mother with deep-set eyes. As Bunnie, slender Carla Petroski is not the chubby mistress that Bananas alludes to, but has hilarious scenes in which she seduces Artie with promises of cooking for him. “I’m a lousy lay,” the mistress says, as she tempts Artie with a future filled with culinary delights – but these are to be withheld until they are married.
The second act of “House of Blue Leaves” gives us six more completely absurd characters. I loved Christine Fallon’s Corrinna Stroller, a movie star who is nearly deaf when she loses her hearing “transistors.” The hope for Artie’s future, the “Godot,” the “Guffman,” is Artie’s friend, movie producer Billy Einhorn. Todd Hancock is superb as the impresario, grieving because just about every woman he gets close to dies. “House of Blue Leaves” has an especially current, creepy element with Nicholas Chokan as Ronnie, the son his parents dote on. He has made a bomb and plans to blow up the pope at his mass in Yankee Stadium. Recent events make this a less absurd element, and a touchstone to today’s crazy world.
Borski puts his own imprint on this production. He favors a strongly presentational approach and maximizes the many opportunities for gross physical comedy. It’s a valid approach and a unified production. I would prefer a bit more emphasis on Guare’s writing, which has won him an Obie award among others. His imagery is poetic, sometimes funny.
“House of Blue Leaves” runs through April 21. Before the show, take time to visit the galleries. The Cleveland Artists Foundation always intrigues with its exhibits. A second show, sponsored by Rotary, showcases art by local high school students. The talent of the young people is impressive. I especially liked the ceramic animal creations from St. Edward High School.