at the theater: the house of blue leaves & the normal heart

It seems as though every pair of plays I’ve seen this season  –  musicals, too for that matter – turn out to be studies in contrast and contradiction.  Keeping the streak going this week are a pair of eagerly awaited “revivals” that are technically making their legit main stem debuts. The House of Blue Leaves is John Guare’s seminal 70’s comedy about marginal lives touched by celebrity – and a visit from the Pope. It’s a New York play in much the same way Guare’s 80’s-defining comedy Six Degrees of Separation is a New York play: each oozes an essential New York-iness that rings true to those of us floating in the middle of the Hudson while casting a casual ambivalence over the shoulder at anyone who can’t keep up. Like the city itself, Guare’s best work houses comedy and tragedy on the same block – a conceit you either find wickedly funny or don’t get at all. Call strike one against Chicago-based director David Cromer, who – safe to say – falls into the later camp. I wouldn’t go so far as to blame his mid-western proclivities for the misguided mess on stage at the Walter Kerr but Cromer’s heavy-handed approach seems better suited to another play: The House of Bernarda Alba. Draining the play of comedy puts its cast of oddball characters in a straitjacket and doesn’t serve the able cast much either. Ben Stiller as the shlubby Everyman who dreams of Hollywood glory and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his opportunistic girlfriend expend so much effort playing to the kitchen sink that it’s exhausting to watch them after a while. More often than not it’s also a style woefully at odds with the play’s heightened theatricality. (Leigh’s part in particular is blessed with a redwood forest of comic zingers – it’s almost criminal to see her directed to swallow them down like so much sour milk.) Only Edie Falco, luminous and fragile as Stiller’s fresh out of the loony bin wife, manages to transcend her surroundings. Then again that’s not exactly something to be desired in an ensemble-driven play. Still, it’s hard to blame an actor for being true to the play; especially when everyone else seems to be auditioning for the indie film version. Surprisingly more successful, the revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a reactionary, rage-fueled cri de coeur from the early 1980’s. (I say surprising because on the page Kramer’s play can come across as an unmitigated screed to the uninitiated.)  Bless Kramer and his anger, however. Though he might shock us to attention with his big mouth, it’s his storytelling prowess that holds us rapt as we follow a thinly veiled stand-in for the playwright as Cassandra, desperate to summon attention for the coming plague and fated to not be believed. Thanks to drum-tight direction from George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey and a superlative cast led by Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey, it’s a story worthy of the Greeks, abetted by a silent President, a closeted Mayor, and an NIH more interested in Nobel glory than human lives. When Ellen Barkin as one of the doctors at the forefront of the fight finds her requests for research funding rejected she erupts in frustrated fury at the ineptitude of a bureaucracy that’s made itself complicit in the death of thousands (It brings down the house like a bolt of lightning, by the way.)  What makes it so potent is the knowledge that twenty-five years on this stage full of young lives will not have lived to see the present day. What gives us hope, without comfort, is that one man lived to shout about it.

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