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A Dark Comedy Explores the American Dream

On December 2, 1971, John Guare, an up-and-coming playwright from Queens, was living a playwright’s dream. A musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona that he had co-written had opened on Broadway, and The House of Blue Leaves, his personal and untraditional tragicomedy, had opened earlier that year in a prestigious Off-Broadway house. Regarded by most as a playwright who had “made it,” Guare had his mind less on his achievements than on his next step, because, as he once said, “The most important play is always the next play.” That next step, though, would have to come sooner than he thought—because on the morning of December 3, 1971, the theater in which Blue Leaves was playing had burned to the ground.

Guest director Will Pomerantz returns to Juilliard for The House of Blue Leaves.

(Photo by Jerry Shafnisky)

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It would be 15 years before the show would return to the New York stage. In 1986 Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater opened a revival of Blue Leaves, which had since become, to Guare’s surprise, a period piece. Yet a little distance had made the play’s message even clearer and more poignant. It was a huge success. Directed by Jerry Zaks, with an impressive cast that included John Mahoney, Stockard Channing, Swoosie Kurtz, Ben Stiller, and Christopher Walken, the production went on to win four Tony Awards, and the play itself has received, over its lifetime, the New York and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and an Obie Award. Yet the play continued to be controversial for its use of black comedy to address important issues in the American psyche, and its unapologetically extreme characterizations.

Much of Guare’s writing seems to come straight from the subconscious, which may explain why critics have had such a difficult time deconstructing his work. Will Pomerantz—who directed Guare’s Landscape of the Body at Juilliard in 2001 and will direct this year’s production of The House of Blue Leaves—explains: “It doesn’t play if you over-analyze or even over-psychologize John’s work ... one of John’s things is his loathing for standard-issue American realism and the deadening effect it’s had on theater, both in terms of writing and performance.”

The events of the play revolve around the Pope’s visit to New York City on October 5, 1965. Artie Shaugnessy (played in Juilliard’s production by actor Stephen King) is a middle-aged man with big dreams and a talent for songwriting. As the play unfolds, we realize that Artie has been waiting for his big break for what seems like far too long. His new mistress, Bunny (played by Joy Suprano), is convinced he is destined to become a classic, and galvanizes him to go to Hollywood to reunite with his old friend Billy Einhorn (Ben Rappaport), a big-time Hollywood producer. But Artie encounters many obstacles, including the psychological hold of Bananas (Erica Newhouse), his deranged and sickly wife; the destructive plans of his son Ronnie (Scott Thomas), a disgruntled soldier who has recently gone AWOL; the unfortunate fate of a deaf movie starlet named Corinna (Cara Cook); and the inconsiderate desires of his successful friend Billy. The play offers hysterical insight into the darker sides of the American dream.

For Guare, it is also a very personal play. When the Pope came to New York to plead at the United Nations for peace in Vietnam, Guare had only recently left the city to travel in Europe, first stopping in Rome with the hope of seeing the Pope. Once there, he spotted the front page of a newspaper, with a picture of the Pope waving to the crowd on Queens Boulevard, a few blocks from his home. Guare had missed His Holiness—but found inspiration for a play. Drawing from memories of his childhood and inspired by his family members, he finished the first act within weeks, and then proceeded to write the second act over the next five years. In 1986, in the preface to the Plume edition of House of Blue Leaves and Landscape of the Body, he called the play autobiographical “in the sense that everything in the play happened in one way or another over a period of years, and some of it happened in dreams and some of it could have happened and some of it, luckily, never happened. But it’s autobiographical all the same.”

The playwright himself will be making frequent visits to Juilliard during the rehearsals. It is a unique opportunity for the students to work with a living dramatist who is also something of a legend, and Guare’s mere presence in the room seems to inspire excitement. “He’s a beautiful storyteller,” says King. “The whole time he’s telling anecdotes about his life and the play, he’s still very passionate.” The actors’ respect for the playwright and enthusiasm for the play seems  entirely reciprocated by Guare himself. Says Thomas, “Hearing him speak about the fire and the hope and the dreams these characters have ... to have him in the room communicating that to us, simply with his presence, was astonishing. He thinks about these characters outside just the context of the play. These aren’t just characters. These are people.” 

This is Pomerantz’s fifth production of Guare’s work, and his second of House of Blue Leaves, yet he still gives the impression of exploring a new frontier. He has renewed his take on the main characters of the play, and come up with an enlightening perspective. “What I’m working with is the idea that the most crazy character in the play [Bananas] is actually the most lucid ... so in some ways, I’m looking at the play through her eyes, so that’s had some effect on the staging, and how I frame the play.” He brings a unique approach to rehearsals, beginning every session with an hour-long warm-up, based on the improvisation and spatial-awareness technique called Viewpoints. For the actors, this is a useful tool in dealing with the “artistic messiness” of the play. “The play is kind of lopsided,” says Suprano. “There are three characters in the first act and over 10 in the second. The Viewpoints work helps us quickly come together as a group.” For Pomerantz, it helps him to get to know the actors quickly, and to get them warmed up physically and psychologically for the extreme demands of the play.

For all the honors the play has received and the rich history it has lived through, it strikes the people who work on it as a constantly evolving piece of dramatic art, continually revealing a new relevance to the country we live in today. Asked if the play felt dated, Pomerantz says, “Actually no, not at all. The issues that it raises about American culture and our obsession with fame, and only knowing love through media adoration ... it’s probably more so today than when he wrote it.” When the play was first produced, Ronnie’s attempt on the Pope’s life seemed a ridiculous caprice. Then, a few years later, an assassination attempt was made on the Pope. Suddenly the play was brought into an entirely new context, with a previously unimagined relevance.

The magic of the play is that it always lends itself to reinvention, and has the capacity to be continually pertinent. “The play feels like a living breathing document,” says Thomas after a rehearsal. “There are elements of real-world terrorism, of economic struggle, of despondence in this play that can be found in today’s society. And really it’s a play about dreams. Dreams are universal. Dreams never die. That’s never dated.”

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