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Long-time Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons and a stellar cast make merry in John Guare’s tragic farce The House of Blue Leaves, set in a cold-water flat in Sunnyside, Queens, on Oct. 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI arrived in New York City to speak out against the Vietnam War. First performed Off Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the Best American Play of 1971, and finally performed on Broadway 15 years later, where it won three 1986 Tony Awards®, this off-kilter comedy features an entire loony bin full of wacky characters, one of whom is a certifiable psychotic with mass murder on his mind—hence the subtitle “Tragic Farce.”
Director Haskell Fitz-Simons and the RLT farceurs have whipped up a delightful comic soufflé that earned an exuberant and lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of the show’s opening-night performance on March 9th. Artie, Bananas, and Ronnie Shaughnessy of Sunnyside—the family that put the D in dysfunctional—are a bunch of nuts. Artie (Rob Flynn) is a zookeeper who aspires to be a singer/songwriter, but cannot even win an amateur night at his own neighborhood bar, the sleazy El Dorado Bar and Grill. Bananas (Amy Flynn) is an extremely desperate housewife, circa 1965, who has already dived headfirst off the deep end and mainly manifests her mental illness by acting like a dog, frantically trying to rekindle the affection that Artie is now lavishing on his buxom mistress, their downstairs neighbor and Artie’s own personal groupie Bunny Flingus (Sandi Sullivan), who is already announcing herself to all and sundry as the next Mrs. Artie Shaughnessy.
When the curtain rises, it is about 4 a.m. and Artie is sleeping fitfully alone on the living-room couch when a burglar appears on the fire escape. The burglar turns out to be the Shaughnessys’ prodigal son, Ronnie (Timothy P. Riordan), who has gone AWOL from the U.S. Army. Ronnie sneaks into the family flat through a window, with bomb-making materials in hand. He plans to hide in his room, and come out and interrupt the Pope’s historic address to the Big Apple faithful with his IED (improvised explosive device).
Director Haskell Fitz-Simons gets gritty performances from RLT veterans Rob Jenkins, Amy Flynn, and Sandi Sullivan, who make their characters’ ludicrous love triangle a constant source of amusement. Jenkins is a scream as Artie, a poor twitchy droopy drawers who’s about to have his long-time dream of becoming a world-famous singer crushed; Flynn is hilariously loopy as Bananas; and Sullivan makes Bunny terrifically trashy—an “other woman” only her mother could love.
Timothy Riordan puts a maniacal gleam in Ronnie’s eye, making him amusing but really, really scary at the same time. Shawn Smith is good as Artie’s lifelong friend, Hollywood producer Billy Einhorn; and Elizabeth Barfoot makes an impressive RLT debut as Billy’s glamorous but slightly out-of-it girlfriend, a hard-of-hearing starlet named Corrina Stroller.
Jo Brown, Kerry Sullivan, and especially Jessica M. Smith provide comic relief as three pushy Nuns scrambling for a better vantage point from which to observe the Holy Father’s procession through the city. David Meyers and Patrick Berry add brisk cameos as a hard-boiled MP sent to bring Ronnie back and the gregarious Man in White dispatched to deliver Bananas to an asylum.
Scenic designer Roger Bridges transforms the stage of the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre into a fascinating facsimile of the Shaughnessys’ grubby apartment, lighting designer Rick Young helps keep the focus on the right ring of this three-ring circus at all times, and costume designer Su-Jung Lee adds authenticity to the production with her colorful recreations of mid-1960s fashions.
Although the wild-and-wooly goings-on that take place in The House of Blue Leaves may not be everyone’s cup of tea, broad-minded theatergoers will relish the rare opportunity to see one of the classic dark comedies of the 1970s in all its wonderful, wacky glory. Don’t miss it.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents The House of Blue Leaves Thursday-Saturday, March 15-17 and 22-24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 18 and 25, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Thursday, Friday, and Sunday ($13 students and seniors 62+) and $17 Saturday. 919/821-3111 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Note: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/performances/blueleaves.html [inactive 7/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=4525. Internet Movie Database (1987 TV movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093222/.