The House of Blue Leaves has never been an easy play to follow, because it shifts moods and styles so often. One minute it's farce, another a situation comedy, still another a satirical take on America's love of celebrity, and yet another, a domestic tragedy. The play was first produced in 1971 when America was in turmoil, a time when so-called family values, as well as trust in America as it pursued a futile war, were being called into question.
Times seem right for a revival, what with warring red and blue states, people turning to religion for answers (the play is based on a visit by the Pope in 1965), and an unpopular war. The House of Blue Leaves was last revived on Broadway in 1986, so this is the first major production in over 20 years. It is also the occasion for the reopening of the "New" Mark Taper Forum.
The Mark Taper Forum is part of the Los Angeles Music Center, which opened in 1967. The most recent addition to the Center is the hugely successful Disney Hall. The Ahmanson was redesigned to make it more audience-friendly (though it can still feel like a barn in the higher altitudes), and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is due for a renovation around 2013. But this year it's the Taper's turn. One of the most obvious improvements is the new lounge downstairs where part of the parking garage was; it features plush sofas and big bathrooms. The seating area has been improved (bigger seats, thank God) and new carpeting. But most of the improvements are backstage, with more room to store sets and clothes, a bigger loading dock, etc.: a vast improvement all around.
The House Of Blue Leaves seems an odd choice to baptize a new theater, but I guess it fits because the theater is an update of an older incarnation, as is this production, directed by Nicholas Martin. Martin is the new Artistic Director of Williamstown, the old home of the Taper's current Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. So in some circular way it all makes sense.
The cast here consists of a troupe of pros led by John Pankow as the would-be composer Artie Shaughnessy. The role of his crazy wife (or is she just over-medicated and unloved?) is here tackled by Ritchie’s wife, the estimable Kate Burton. Jane Kaczmarek is the woman who cooks, makes up platitudes, and wants to marry Artie but instead runs off with his celebrity friend Billy Einhorn (Diedrich Bader). There are other fine performances, by Rusty Schwimmer as the whistle-blowing nun, Angela Goethals as the little nun, and especially Artie’s son Ronnie who wants to blow up the Pope, here well played by James Immekus.
None of these performances made me forget the original cast of Harold Gould, Frank Converse, Katherine Helmond, William Atherton, and Anne Meara. That production was directed by Mel Shapiro and seemed to have a little more heart, while this new one was, at times, a bit slick.
The House of Blue Leaves runs until Oct. 19th. It's well worth the visit, both to see this classic by John Guare, probably his best play, and to see the “New” Mark Taper Forum.