Ah, the joys and sorrows of magical thinking! They have a special zest — and pathology — in the bizarre wishfulness of American life and globally in the strange lucky-charm permutations of the Roman Catholic Church. John Guare brought them both to New York City in The House of Blue Leaves, first staged a matter of months after the historic event it commemorates, Pope Paul VI's U.S. visit of 1965. It was the first time a reigning pope had ever set foot on American soil, capped by the evening mass at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 4.
Just two years ago, when they were still Collaborative Arts, Charlotte Shakespeare made their first journey into the fetid swamps of Catholicism with Incorruptible, a robust medieval fabliau as rancid and corrupt as anything Chaucer put into his Canterbury Tales. So there isn't a company better equipped to navigate the odd ragout of piety, cruelty, terrorism, humor, anguish and down-market Tin Pan Alley that the playwright cooks up for us here.
Of the three main figures in Guare's tragicomedy, Jill-of-all-trades Bunny Flingus believes most devoutly in the transformative power of a papal blessing, nod, or wink — even a generic wave from a passing pope-mobile — upon the life of an eager pilgrim. Not that Bunny's life is particularly devout, for she is the mistress of Artie Shaughnessy. Without any special perspicacity, Bunny also believes in Artie's talents as a songwriter. Their immediate plans, pending cooperation from Artie's wife Bananas, include a quickie Mexican divorce, a move to California, and fabulous success as soon as Artie begins writing tunes for Hollywood.
By day a zookeeper and by night an aspiring songsmith, Artie has allowed Bunny's sunny optimism to renew his ambition and buoy his hopes. They both can see — and so can we — that Bananas is a depressed and depressing albatross sapping the sweetness from his life and holding him down. Yet Artie has his own mighty resource to lean upon for transformative intercession. At any time he can pick up the phone, dial long distance and speak with his old pal Billy Einhorn, the celebrated Hollywood director — if he can only get up the nerve.
Now Billy is one of Guare's zany twists on the tragic paradigms of Arthur Miller. As the mythic man who enflames Artie's daydreams, Billy is very much in the same mold as Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman. But every visit from Billy is a catastrophe — whether tragic or comical is hard to decide, but definitely a catastrophe. That certainly was the outcome of Billy's previous visit to Queens, when the Shaughnessy family offered him refuge from the paparazzi of Manhattan, but you'll want to listen to Ronnie Shaughnessy's account of that fateful encounter. He's home from a tour of Vietnam, and what he's carrying with him would be enough for Willy Loman to bless his lucky stars that his sons were such upright citizens as Biff and Happy.
Beyond these closely connected troublemakers, Guare tosses in a trio of nuns, a military MP and a Hollywood starlet who's nearly as revered as the pope. So between the papal motorcade and the Yankee Stadium mega-mass, there's enough hubbub in the Shaughnessy household to summon up the ghost of George S. Kaufman. This is comic relief on steroids.
Directing this nettlesome script, Elise Wilkinson embraces the contradictions rather than attempting to smooth them out. As a result, the comedy is less queasy — more a section of a realistic tapestry — than it was when Theatre Charlotte presented an excellently directed Blue Leaves in 1987. Not ignoring Bananas' eccentricity, Barbi Van Schaick goes for the darkness and despair of her illness unflinchingly, and likewise, Daniel O'Sullivan makes Ronnie far from cartoonish as he hatches his terrorist scheme.
Often the essence of urbanity, Joe Copley's accent and manner as Artie are indicative of his best venture yet into average-Joe territory. He is our tragic hero, but we don't forget that Artie is more comical than Willy Loman, primarily because he must indiscreetly plow through so much real tragedy surrounding him to feebly pursue his selfish ambitions. Meanwhile, Meghan Lowther is so transparent in her hypocrisy, so openly crass in her tight pants and blond wig, so obviously for sale, that we love this Bunny like the wayward scamp in a sitcom; say, I Love Lucy.
Wilkinson's set design will not earn her a shower of contracts outside her company, but it's likely to withstand three weekends of odd entrances and mayhem. More important than the tenement are the costumes, which range from Army uniforms to nuns' habits to full-blown Hollywood couture, all up to Jamey Varnadore's thrifty high standards. And if the fight choreography near the end is lackluster, Trista Bremer's blue-leaves lighting design allows Copley to finish as pitch-perfectly as he starts.