'House' Renovations

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

taper-sm.jpgTechnically, the Mark Taper Forum was closed over the past year for renovations; but in fact, the venerable downtown theater has been closed for almost three years. Closed that is, to the type of thoughtful, professional, ensemble drama that has been the Taper's aim for so many years. Sure, there were new plays, but they all seemed to be just-written or half-written pieces that lacked much dramatic weight or relevance.

The good news is that the Taper renovation is done. The stage itself looks much the same, but the seats and lobby areas have been spiffed up. The new look suggests 70's nightclub chic, but who cares, because the better news is: for the first time since the very beginning of Artistic Director Michael Ritchie's tenure — since the 2005 off-Broadway transfer of David Mamet's riotous comedy, Romance — the Taper has a Broadway caliber production on its stage.

blue_leaves-1sm.jpgThe new staging of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves is polished and professional in almost every detail. David Korins' set design effectively conveys the piece's 1960's Sunnyside setting. Nicholas Martin's direction is light and graceful, handling the play's whimsy and madcap moments as well as its underlying tragedy with skill. Most of all he recreates the details of the era, when color TV's seemed special and a cross-country phone call was a major event.

blue_leaves-7sm.jpg The foundation though of this sturdy production of House is the acting. Kate Burton is the biggest name in the cast. A three-time Tony award nominee, Burton can be a towering presence of stage — as those who saw her Broadway turn as Hedda Gabler can attest. Here at the Taper, playing a housewife who's being eased by her husband towards a mental institution, Burton is understated and captivating. Her character, Bananas Shaughnessy, may indeed be crazy, but as Burton plays her, the exact cause and depth of her neurosis is elusive.

The rest of eleven-person ensemble is strong, yet this production is truly brought to life by two character actors who shine as the play's lead couple: two dreamers from Queens who fantasize about moving to California and making it big. John Pankow plays Artie Shaughnessy, a zoo-keeper who wants to be a songwriter. He writes ditties, plays them at the local amateur hour, but blames his wife, Bananas, for holding him back from his dreams. He's enabled by his mistress, a loud New Yawker named Bunny Flingus, who projects her grand dreams of escape from the suburbs onto Artie's modest talents.

blue_leaves-6sm.jpg Pankow's performance is the less flashy turn, but he is completely immersed in the role—his moustache, his outer borough accent, everything is spot on. He's what gives the whole play credibility. His Artie is likable, deluded, humble, a little pushy and thoroughly letting his life slip away…yet Pankow makes him seem like a normal guy, an underdog we want to see succeed, even as the play makes it clear that he's completely clueless about his family and the people around him.

 Jane Kaczmarek plays the more scene-stealing role of Bunny and she successfully navigates the fine line between over-the-top and camp. Her comic timing is perfect and she milks a running gag about her countless past professions for every laugh she can.

 Pankow and Kaczmarek are so good, they beg comparison to the legendary 1986 Broadway production (that starred John Mahoney as Artie and Stockard Channing as Bunny — and a young Ben Stiller as their son, Ronnie) which took Guare's 1971 play and made it an American standard.

blue_leaves-4sm.jpgNow, here's where we unfortunately get to the bad news. 22 years after that Tony-winning production, The House of Blue Leaves seems a bit dated. It's still a good play, but it often feels like a Neil Simon work from the late 1960's; and this production — for all its strengths — ultimately feels like a plush, 1980's Lincoln Center revival. Given the Taper's recent woes, it's perhaps unwise to complain; but is the state of Los Angeles theater such that for the grand re-opening of LA's most celebrated stage, the most we can hope for is a polished re-staging of a quaint, New York-centric play written almost 40 years ago?

John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves runs through October 19th at the Mark Taper Forum.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Craig Schwartz