Take the subject. Harry Brock, a ruthless junk merchant and tycoon, arrives in Washington in 1946 to exert his malefic influence. He has brought along to his hotel suite his mistress, Billie, a former chorus girl as uneducated as himself. Along also are Eddie Brock, his cousin and bodyguard, and Ed Devery, his unprincipled lawyer. The gaudily luxurious suite costs $ 235, meant to be excessive, but routine by today’s standards. Awaiting him is Paul Verrall, a liberal investigative reporter from The New Republic to interview him. Calling presently are Senator Norval Hedges (who is in Harry’s pocket) and his sniffy wife.
Harry takes a shine to Paul, unaware of their antithetical politics. Since Billie also responds favorably to the bright young man, Harry hires him to educate the smart but unschooled young woman. Paul brings books of all kinds, and two months later Billie is already up on history, literature the English language and her sugar daddy’s dirty dealings. Will she still submissively endure Harry’s brutal handling of her? Especially since she and Paul are developing more than tutorial interest in each other?
There is, of course, more to the play, but what was of crucial interest in 1976 was the feminist angle: the manhandled concubine becoming a liberated woman. Politics couched in comedy with a romantic angle was just the thing in its day. Now, however, women’s emancipation has long since become the norm, even as The New Republic has lost much of its muckraking prestige. The corrupt lawyer’s awakening self-disgust is, at least in the theater, no news either.
So today it all pretty much depends on the production, which I find suffering considerably from the casting of Nina Arianda as Billie. Her debut last season in Venus in Furs was hailed by reviewers, who find her vastly attractive, as does she herself, radiating delusions of grandeur. To my eyes, she is pinch-faced and downright homely. And while Judy Holliday, in the original production, and Madeline Kahn, in the 1989 Broadway revival, had a blend of sexiness and charm going for them, they were also not nearly as snappish and vulgar as the Arianda, who, instead of mere likable naivete, exudes tough coarseness.
Jim Belushi’s Harry may be a trifle too monochromatically brutish, but Robert Sean Leonard is fine as Paul, and manages to look, with the help of Catherine Zuber’s costumes, genuinely 1946. The dependable Frank Wood, owing to his or the director’s perhaps too low esteem for the legal profession, spits out his lines a trifle too bluntly. Terry Beaver as the bribed Senator and Michael McGrath as the muscleman cousin, do nicely by smaller parts in Doug Hughes’s generally satisfying staging. Conceivably best of all is John Lee Beatty’s set: seldom before has charmless opulence been conveyed with such delightful tongue in cheek.
John Guare’s 1966 hit, The House of Blue Leaves was a shot at a dark absurdist comedy by an emerging American playwright, today yet another revival showing its age.
Back then it seemed daring in its mixture of satire and frivolity, modest irreligion and cavalier disrespect for certain conventions. A comedy in which four persons die, three by bomb explosion and one by murder, came across nervy enough to succeed.
Middle-aged Artie Shaugnessy, a zookeeper and would-be Hollywood songwriter– a man of more optimism than talent–is married to a sweetly pathetic, heavily medicated nutcase, aptly named Bananas. She ambles through the play like a sleepwalker, except when she tries to win over her straying husband by impersonating an adoringly yelping, hand-licking puppy.
But Artie, in plain sight of Bananas, is carrying on with Bunny Flingus, whom he met in a steambath, right there in the Shaugnessy’s messily overstuffed, shabby Queens apartment. Bunny is planning to move to L.A. with Artie, who, with her support, is to become a successful screenwriter. Meanwhile excitement is in the air, what with the Pope coming to visit New York to preach an end to war in Vietnam. Bunny intends to join millions of New Yorkers lining up along the Pope’s route, where she hopes, pushing forward Artie and his sheet music, to get a papal blessing for the work and a gesture that would marry the two of them.
Artie’s expectation, however, is that his old schoolmate Billy Einhorn, now a major Hollywood film director engaged to the glamorous star Corinna Stroller, will come to his and Bunny’s aid in Hollywood, while the pitiful Bananas , wandering about in a worn nightgown and ratty cardigan, is to be packed off to the loony bin. Artie is stuffing her with pills when he is not improvising at the piano and singing some of his ridiculous songs, such as “Who Put the Devil in Evelyn?”
Unknown to him, his recently drafted 18-year-old, Ronnie, is already AWOL, planning to off the Pope with a home-made bomb and so achieve celebrity. Fame is what most of these good Americans lust for, and Guare has his fun with them. As also with the three nuns that irrupt the Shaughnessy apartment taking over the TV, and the MP who is out to catch the deserter, and much, much else.
Ben Stiller, otherwise acceptable, doesn’t look old enough for Artie; Edie Falco, superb as Bananas and looking her age, doesn’t look youthful enough for Stiller.
Jennifer Jason Leigh would be right as Bunny, but for her too frantic delivery, which undercuts the poetic monologues Guare has written for the part. There is nice supporting work from Thomas Sandoski, Alison Pill, Mary Beth Hurt, Halley Feiffer and Susan Bennett, and an interesting (though excessive) set from Scott Pask. But somehow I wasn’t either much tickled or moved. Could it be that absurdism has seen its day, our daily lives having become absurd enough?
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.