The House of Blue Leaves

Rated 4.0

When John Guare wrote his loopy, occasionally grim comedy The House of Blue Leaves, he went over the top in more ways than one. On the frivolous side, this play includes a surprise visit by three celebrity-conscious nuns who go nuts seeking autographs when they cross paths with a Hollywood starlet.

There’s plenty of dark content as well. Guare etches a comic portrait of an utterly miserable marriage, in which the husband dumps his mentally ill wife for another woman. There’s also an AWOL soldier in khaki stalking a famous public figure, and there are two characters who meet violent deaths. Keep in mind that Guare wrote this script in the aftermath of 1968, the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. The Vietnam War, which an increasing number of people saw as an ill-considered disaster, was very much on the nation’s mind.

The House of Blue Leaves seems strangely contemporary, even though the play is set in 1965. We seem to be more obsessed with celebrities than ever (Jen! Brad!), and the play’s military references would work just as well if you substituted “Middle East” for “Vietnam.”

In addition to being timely, this production by the Actor’s Theatre is also notable for—surprise!—the acting. Balding Mark Heckman brings charm to the part of Artie Shaughnessy, a small-time loser who lusts after fame and the available single woman downstairs (played with man-hungry panache by Jennifer Grundy). Crystalaura Jackson plays Artie’s deranged, pathetic and reclusive wife, while Galen Howard is all piss and vinegar as their son. In a welcome return to the stage, Beth Edwards does a fine, funny job as the starlet who’s hard of hearing. Director Bob DeLucia keeps this three-ring circus moving briskly and uncovers plenty of laughs without obscuring their tragic implications.