THEATER REVIEW — Ralph and Alice Krampden of The Honeymooners had that shabby apartment, but love and Ralph’s optimism transcended peeling paint and cramped quarters. Ricky and Lucy of I Love Lucy defined madcap and hijinks in the best possible way, no undercurrent of bleak desperation in sight. Artie and his wife, Bananas, from The House of Blue Leaves, playing at Wellesley College’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre through January 31, are another story, one told through the lens of dark comedy. They’ve got the shabby apartment, but not Ralph and Alices’s back-and-forth sassiness to keep things lively. They’ve got the nuttiness of Ricky and Lucy, but with Artie and Bananas, that nuttiness is certifiable and always takes a mean-spirited, humiliating direction. Nobody knows how to take the fun out of dysfunctional better and in a more fascinating way than the characters in John Guare’s (who also wrote Six Degrees of Separation) 1971 play about what happens when life refuses to take a turn for the better.
Bananas, played by Molly Parker Myers with Ophelia-like derange and mutterings, lives with mental illness that keeps her medicated and home, fretting about the uneven length of her fingernails. Artie is her heartless husband, a wanna-be Hollywood songwriter who flaunts his affair with the downstairs neighbor. The play is a look at what happens when marriage and career disappoint, as when Artie’s day job as a zookeeper simply continues when he gets home at night because his wife must be kept as contained as the wild animals he keeps caged and fed all day.
Artie is played by Paul Michael Valley — perhaps best known for the 500+ episodes he performed as Ryan Harrison on the soap opera Another World — with great nuance. At times Valley made me feel almost feel sorry for the self-centered failure he played, as Artie leads his life of loud desperation. Getting through his day-to-day life looked like such a Sisyphean task, I admit that Valley made me almost start to hope that the boulder wouldn’t roll right over this cruel bully. After all, Artie suffers for his art, playing his songs in seedy lounges by night. I didn’t come to my senses until the final act. How silly of me to hope that redemption could emerge from a dark comedy.
Victoria George rounds out the leads, playing Artie’s mistress, Bunny, with casual, gleeful, cruelty. George gives us the single lead character who is actually allowed to enjoy life. She enjoys her affair with Artie. She enjoys withholding food from her hungry man (she believes in sex before marriage, but not cooking). She enjoys his wife’s knowledge and misery that she is having an affair with her husband. Bunny is opportunistic to the core, and right now, she counts her best opportunity as the one this upstairs neighbor just might provide.
Those three had me looking around for the exits, not because the play was bad, but because the characters seemed so real, I was afraid that I might become trapped right there with those nut jobs. There seemed to be no escape for them, right down to the apartment where all action occurred. Everything about Wellesley resident David Towlun’s set designs expressed bleak lives and shabby conditions and reduced circumstances. Could Artie really make it big in Hollywood? Even with just one enviable connection? Even in spite of those dreadful songs? Everything about the setting, put together by Towlun without so much as a struggling potted plant to represent possible growth, suggests not.
The rest of the cast, played mostly with a combination of Actors’ Equity Association professionals and Wellesley college students, ably fleshed out the story. Thank heavens for the nuns, especially Wellesley College senior Ariela Nazar-Rosen, who provided necessary comic relief in the middle of the play — they weren’t the serious Doubt kind of nuns, think more the flighty Sister Act variety.
The House of Blue Leaves, the 1971 Drama Critics’ Circle award-winner for Best American Play, is well worth seeing. The appreciative and nearly sold-out audience of around 80 at the small Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre was given a rare look inside one of those apartments where you’ve always suspected things aren’t quite right, the one that always made you wonder exactly what was going on in there. Find out for yourself at one of Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s remaining performances.
Thursdays ~Jan. 14, 21, 28 @ 7pm
Fridays ~ Jan. 15, 22, 29 @ 7pm
Saturdays ~ Jan. 16, 23, 30 @ 2pm & 7pm
Sundays ~ Jan. 17, 24, 31@ 2pm
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