There's an Insanely Well Acted House of Blue Leaves in Arlington and Bedlam in Bedford with Cuckoo's Nest.
Take four or five of those deluded fame-seekers of American Idol's audition episodes—the lumpenproles in tutus and tiaras who sing like they're gargling tapioca—and you've got the main characters of John Guare's hauntingly funny-sad play The House of Blue Leaves, now onstage at Theatre Arlington with a cast that never stumbles over Guare's lurches between light and dark. The play, written in 1971, but set in 1965, looks at a subculture gone mad obsessing over celebrities.
Actually, a subculture of a subculture. Artie Shaughnessy (played by Ted Wold) and his wife, Bananas (Lana K. Hoover), are middle-aged underachievers sharing a dreary basement apartment in, ironically, Sunnyside, Queens. He sleeps on the sofa and blithely entertains his girlfriend, downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus (Lisha Brock), while Bananas, schizophrenic and numbed by pills, shuffles around in an old robe and mismatched shoes. Artie is a zookeeper who dreams of making it as a songwriter in Hollywood. Trouble is, he can barely sing, and his original tunes like "Who Put the Devil in Evelyn" all are Tin Pan Alley sound-alikes that reek of desperation. Bunny, a veteran of many bad jobs, just wants out of Queens, with Artie or anyone else willing to take her along.
The House of Blue Leaves offers a loopy study of the grandiose fantasies of the terminally un-famous. Besides Artie and his women, there's also his son, Ronnie (the manically tense Skyy Moore), a failed child actor who's now an AWOL soldier planning to blow up Pope Paul VI to avoid the war in Vietnam. (The play's only touch of reality is that the Pope did make a visit to the United Nations in 1965 to plead for peace in Southeast Asia.)
Into the Shaughnessy living room falls a bizarre bunch of characters. Three nuns climb in from the fire escape, begging to watch the papal parade on TV. A starlet, Corrinna (Elizabeth Conly), whose career was sidelined by deafness, drops by at the behest of Artie's childhood chum Billy (Eugene Chandler), a successful Hollywood producer. Later, Billy arrives, too, but only after something terrible has happened to Corrinna, dashing Artie's plans for hitching his wagon to Billy's star.
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When this play is funny, it is very funny (a series of misunderstandings leads to a payoff in Corrinna's blurt of a single word: "Unitarian"). And when it is serious, it is deadly serious. The comedy hits its peak in a smashing sequence that has everyone crashing in and out of windows and doors like a bit from A Night at the Opera. Round and round go Artie, Bananas, Ronnie, a trio of full-habited wacky nuns (played by Beverly Murray, Becca Nordeen and Hilary Evitt) and the bimbo named Bunny in pink galoshes and a nimbus of peroxide-dyed bouffant. Director B.J. Cleveland, an expert comic actor himself, has added plenty of sly flourishes to the running around.
Clouds gather around the comedy when Artie explains to Bananas that her destiny lies not in Beverly Hills but in a tree-shaded cuckoo's nest in the country where he's already reserved her a padded room. Poor Bananas. Like Artie, she thinks of movie and TV stars as the only "real" people. "We're the creatures of their dreams," she says. In her world, she's Artie's pet, whimpering at his feet and pawing the air as he hand-feeds her. For him, sadly, she's become just another dumb, needy animal blocking his career as the next Harold Arlen.
In their scenes together, Wold and Hoover, as husband and wife, do a fascinating push-pull of love, loathing and pity. Hoover, who looks a lot like Swoosie Kurtz, star of the acclaimed 1986 Lincoln Center revival of this play, floats Bananas in and out of a fragile mental state in which unheard (by us) voices clamor for her attention. The baldheaded Wold, eyebrows curved up over cartoon-round eyes, talk-sings Artie's bouncy pop songs, then drops his shoulders with a heavy sigh. He knows he's a loser—it's Bunny's constant buffing of his ego that gives him energy for one last try.
It's a great play, but time has caught up with many of John Guare's once-startling ideas. In 1971 what may have seemed wildly exaggerated nonsense about the lengths star-struck Artie et al go to in grasping for fame is nothing unusual now. We call TMZ "the news" and go into blind rage when TiVo cuts off the last minutes of Idol. Some 60 million YouTube viewers have gone bananas over a contestant on a British talent show who is Artie and Bananas rolled into one.
The House of Blue Leaves delivers some laughs and at least two good out-of-nowhere jolts of surprise, but its message is no longer grotesque or absurd. A play that skewers fame-mania loses a little of its sting now that we all live in one big celeb-laden loony bin where anyone can upload a shot at stardom and achieve it.
A worthy companion piece to House of Blue Leaves, with its Ken Kesey-esque twists, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the stage play by Dale Wasserman based on Kesey's 1960s novel. Onstage in Bedford, a small community theater, has a strong production of it going on. Theirs is better directed (by Bill Fountain), better acted (by some first-timers) and better designed (particularly Fountain's soundtrack of vintage rock and Sam Nance's sharp lighting) than the sterile big-budget version that went up a few months ago at the all-professional Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
What the Bedford theater gets right that CTD didn't is the level to which the inmates take over their asylum. Set in a grubby state mental hospital day room, Cuckoo's Nest charts the changes in a group of men—"chronics, walkers and vegetables"—suffering varying levels of psychoses. Their catalyst is R.P. McMurphy (Randal Scott), a convicted rapist trying to avoid a prison work-farm by pretending to be "bull-goose loony." Or is it not an act?
From the moment he's admitted, McMurphy is under the icy gaze of Nurse Ratched (Desiree Fultz), a gorgon who goads each patient with verbal sucker punches. "What would your mother say?" is her way of knocking the stuffing out of stuttering teenager Billy Bibbitt (Nick Jones) whenever he tries standing up to the nurse's bullying.
Fountain has created an off-kilter atmosphere for this production that always feels a little dangerous, which is exciting. Occasionally, a patient wanders into the audience, mumbling and drooling, until an "orderly" finds him and escorts him back to the "ward." Fights escalate to all-out screaming bedlam. Ruckly (Ken Long), a patient who thinks he's Jesus, pees himself. And the party scene, when McMurphy sneaks two whores in after-hours, has a furtive sense of rule-breaking mischief.
Scott, hair combed into a Kevin-Spacey-as-Verbal-Kint point, rushes his dialogue and claps his hands too much, but otherwise sends off plenty of sparks as McMurphy. As his friend "Chief Broom," Daylon Walton makes his character's poetic monologues (the squishiest aspect of the stage version) into quiet moments of insight into how it must feel to be locked inside a terribly troubled mind. And Ms. Fultz keeps Nurse Ratched's syrupy malevolence on a low, and terrifying, simmer.
The secret of making Cuckoo's Nest this good, apparently, is giving the actors the freedom to go more than a little bit batshit crazy.
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