There are moments during the new Broadway revival of John Guare’s ’60s-set dramedy The House of Blue Leaves that really sing. Many of these involve Edie Falco, who plays the mentally unstable heroine Bananas Shaughnessy looking like the disheveled older sister of Chloe Sevigny with an unkempt mop of blonde hair. In her memorable first scene, the aptly named Bananas nearly walks in on her husband, Artie (Ben Stiller) and his mistress, Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She stands in the shadows just outside the Shaughnessy living room as Bunny declares her intention to marry Artie, a zookeeper who longs to escape to Hollywood and write songs for the movies. Bananas doesn’t say a word, but she hovers at the threshold like a spectral presence. She is touching, haunting, riveting.
On the whole, though, director David Cromer’s production seems to occupy a liminal space as well, never firmly planting its foot in either drama or comedy, tragedy or farce. Guare dabbles in all the genres in his dark satire of domestic unrest and the craven quest for fame and celebrity, but they never manage to gel under Cromer’s direction. Too often, his three leads seem to be in three completely different shows.
One of the chief obstacles is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gives another of her very mannered performances as Bunny. It’s as if she’s playing Cabaret‘s Sally Bowles all over again, only this time with a Queens accent — but she’s so shrill and off-putting that you wonder why Artie would ever consider fleeing to California with her. As a result, Stiller seems at a bit of a loss. Though this is his first Broadway production since the acclaimed 1986 revival of Blue Leaves, the star seems remarkably comfortable on stage, even as he plays piano and sings some of Artie’s dreadful Tin Pan Alley knockoffs (”Where is the Devil in Evelyn”). But he’s forced to ping-pong between Falco and Leigh and their very disparate performance styles, and perhaps as a result Artie’s climactic final act of desperation doesn’t feel fully earned.
The unevenness of Cromer’s direction is most pronounced in the first act, which is dominated by Artie, Bananas, and Bunny. The second act perks to life with the introduction with a farcical fleet of new characters, many of them played by scene-stealing stand-outs: relative newcomer Christopher Abbott as the Shaughnessys’ increasingly deranged Vietnam-bound son, Ronnie (the role Stiller once played); Alison Pill (Milk) as the delightfully daffy deaf actress Corrinna Stroller, a vision in a white dress; and Thomas Sadoski (reasons to be pretty) as the neighborhood boy-turned-Hollywood hot shot whose coattails Artie unrealistically hopes to ride to fame. Yet overall, this production of The House of Blue Leaves is not unlike one of Artie’s wannabe hit tunes: The notes are there, and the enthusiasm, but it never quite finds its rhythm. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com; 800-432-7250)