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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Applause of Blue Leaves

A lot of John Guare's plays break fourth walls, reconstruct them, and knock'em down again. It's a nice technique, and in the hands of lesser writers, a tired technique. Guare does it consistently, and does it well.

And that's my opinion. Which is hardly well-informed, but sturdy.

Take House of Blue Leaves, which was the first play I'd ever seen by Guare, and perhaps the first play I video-taped and watched repeatedly. I was fourteen or fifteen, and while not all the play made sense to me, there was something so unique about it that I knew, instinctively, sense was to be had; perhaps the next viewing would clue me in on the themes flying over my head, and perhaps maturity would clarify why the ending seemed so devastating and so full of elation all at once.

House of Blue Leaves, in a nutshell, is about a day in 1965, in Sunnyside, Queens, New York, where a man named Artie Shaughnessy faces his failures with all the grace of a penguin on roller skates. Pope Paul VI is visiting the UN to lecture the world on peace, and Artie, who wants nothing more than to be a famous Oscar-winning music composer in California, is stuck in a dingy Queens apartment with his mentally-ill wife, Bananas, and his ambitious mistress/wife-to-be, Bunny Flingus. At the play's end, the dingy apartment will have been visited by three nuns, an AWOL maniac, a fading actress, a famous film director, a MP, and two men sent from the loony bin to collect Mrs. Arthur M. Shaughnessy. And a bomb, which works.

What I didn't get when I first saw it, but should've gotten, is that the play is about the audience. Or an audience. Or just , without an article.
It really was comical. The Pope wore a yarmulke.

Bunny Flingus, the mistress/wife-to-be of Artie, bursts into the Shaughnessy apartment at the beginning of the first act, at a quarter to four in the morning, and demands Artie get up and out on the sidewalk to wave at the Pope as the Pope speeds by on his way to the UN. Bunny informs Artie that there are throngs of people already waiting. Bunny informs Artie that the woman at the local A&P has connections allowing her to hold a spot for Bunny and Artie near the curb. Bunny then informs Artie of this: “When famous people go to sleep at night, it's us they dream of, Artie. The famous ones—they're the real people. We're the creatures of their dreams. You're the dream. I'm the dream. We have to be there for the Pope's dream.”

This, by the way, is on the heels of an opening prologue in which Artie, desperate to be a famous Oscar-winning film composer, begins the show by entering a nearly-empty stage, sitting behind a piano, and treating a largely unresponsive audience to a few of his tunes while begging for a blue spotlight from a completely unresponsive light-booth. During this prologue, Artie mugs for the silent audience, attempting to get a reaction, or approbation, or validation, or sympathy, or anything from them.

And now Bunny, in a monologue about fame, states the obvious: the stars need us to see them, and they need us to make them famous.

House of Blue Leaves is Guare's second most famous play. His most famous is Six Degrees of Separation, which was written a few decades later and uses the same Ataud-may-care attitude toward the fourth wall. Both House and Six Degrees come off as a series of anecdotes told over after-dinner libations. Anecdotes, of course, require an audience (or did before livejournal made everyone into a novice Noel Coward).

In Six Degrees, one of the better anecdotes, and the anecdote that sets the entire plot of the play into motion, is told by Paul. Paul introduces himself, under extraordinary circumstances, to the play's two protagonists, a white, upper middle class couple on the Upper West Side (I think—perhaps they're Upper East Side; no matter—they've seldom been above 125th Street on either side of the compass) named Ouisa and Flan. Paul, a Black male of a certain age far below that of Ouisa and Flan, introduces himself as a friend of Ouisa and Flan's children, an old college colleague in need of immediate assistance. Ouisa and Flan let him into their home and during the course of the evening, Paul reveals he is the son of Sidney Poitier. Only Paul isn't so crass as to come out as say his father is the famous and ground-breaking Black actor; he implies it, and his audience desperately infers his meaning.

Back to House of Blue Leaves. Which is a better play.

That's my opinion.

There are several moments where fame intersects with an audience's need to believe fame exists—not the least of which is, near the end, when a nun who has decided to leave her order touches a television tenderly and declares it 'a shrine.' 

The TV, by the way, has recently been used as a way for two older nuns very determined in their order to stage photo-ops with the Pope and other notables. “Get me,” the Mother Superior says, bending down close beside the TV screen: “Get me with Jackie Kennedy!” A picture is snapped, and suddenly the Mother Superior has been with Jackie Kennedy. “Bob Hope,” another nun shouts, passing the camera to Mother Superior. “Get me with Bob Hope!”

Sadly, or perhaps wisely, Guare doesn't go for a Pope/Hope joke.

Near the end of Act I, Bananas delivers the best monologue in the entire show and perhaps one of the most wonderfully baffling monologues in American theatre. In the monologue, Bananas tells the audience about the time she drove into Manhattan, ended up at 42nd St and Broadway, and noticed four famous people on each of the four corners of the intersection: Cardinal Spellman. Jackie Kennedy. Bob Hope. President Johnson. Bananas tells the audience she tried to offer each of them a ride, then, when they refuse her offer, declares, “I hit them all.” Her monologue ends with this: “...I turn on Johnny Carson to get my mind off and there's Cardinal Spellman and Bob Hope, whose ski-nose is still bleeding, and they all tell the story of what happened to them and everybody laughs. Thirty million people watch Johnny Carson and they all laugh. At me. At me. I'm nobody, I knew all those people better than me. You. Ronnie. I know everything about them. Why can't they love me?”

(Because, Bananas. Because. Also, did this actually happen, Bananas, or did you want so much to be loved that even ridicule is better than obscurity?)

The beginning of Act II of House of Blue Leaves lets the AWOL soldier son of Bananas and Artie speak. Ronnie Shaughnessy, Artie tells us at the beginning of Act I, has a charmed life, has been drafted off to Vietnam, and the reason the Pope is coming to the UN is to stop the war so Ronnie won't be sent off to fight. 

(Famous people need us to make them famous; we need famous people to have hope in some kind of alleviation from our powerless dread that we'll never be famous enough to be needed or useful or vital or, of course, to prevent our children from going to war. Only fame came make a difference for our children. Our job, as an audience, is to clap, or boo.) 

Anyway, so the curtain goes up on Act II, and we're treated to the full Ronnie Shaughnessy, charmed life and all.

“My father tell you all about me? Pope Ronnie? Charmed life? How great I am?” Ronnie begins before launching into a painful anecdote—to the audience—about the time he tried to convince a famous movie director he would make the perfect Huckleberry Finn for the director's proposed future production of a film version of the eponymous novel. “I asked the nun in school who Huckleberry Finn was...She told me. The Ideal American Boy.” Long story short, Ronnie, convinced he was the Ideal American Boy, decides to perform an impromptu audition for the director, who responds to the audition by saying to Ronnie's parents: “You never told me you had a mentally retarded child.”

Incidentally, Ronnie delivers this anecdote/monologue while dressing himself as an altar boy. And assembling a bomb that works. Ronnie is the only person in the Shaughnessy family to realize his dream: he doesn't blow up the Pope, but he does manage to murder two nuns and a deaf actor.

Yadda yadda yadda, a Hollywood director ends up in the Shaughnessy apartment in Queens and says this to Artie: “Do you know who I make my pictures for? Money? No. Prestige. No. I make them for you... I sit on the set and before every scene I say, “Would this make Artie laugh? Would this make Artie cry?”...If I ever thought you and Bananas weren't here in Sunnyside, seeing my work, loving my work, I could never work again. You're my touch with reality.”

And so Artie is forced to realize his place amongst the stars.

In Six Degrees, Paul, too, is forced to recognize his place. But the audience is never allowed to give much notice to Paul; Ouisa and Flan dominate the play, and we're left with Ouisa's reflections on that one time she and Flan were taken in by a huckster, and how it affected her. Paul gets a shout-out here and there, but Guare doesn't let the audience off very easily by giving Paul a happy ending. Paul's ending is questionable, and Ouisa and Flan are left with a very good story to give to any audience willing to listen.

For Artie, his place is as a cog—a tiny cog—in a system designed to make him redundant and therefore useless. Artie is an individual but not, and he sees his dreams die in a single day the Pope came to New York. The last scene, which is both full of devastation and elation, gives Artie a spotlight, but it also gives him a death he earned. He earned both the spotlight, and he earned the death.

And the audience withholds their approval once more. Not a damn person should applaud at the end of House of Blue Leaves, and if they do hit them. Hit them all. Because we're all just six degrees away from Cardinal Spellman, Jackie Kennedy, Bob Hope, President Johnson, and the audience who wills all famous people into being.

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