So: Ben Stiller played the teenage son in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” in 1986. Twenty five years later he steps into the main role of Artie. Talk about coming full circle. Ben’s mother, Anne Meara, starred in the original 1971 production. She’s going to be happy tonight, because Ben turns out to be quite the serious stage actor.
After years of inspired silliness with movies like “Tropic Thunder” and “There’s Something About Mary,” Stiller got serious last year with a small but well done film called “Greenberg.” You could tell something had changed in his acting. Now as Artie he’s terrific–sad, confused, earnest and yearning for acceptance from his childhood friend, Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadowski) now a Hollywood filmmaker.
But Artie is trapped in Queens with his crazy wife, Bananas, played with poignancy by Edie Falco. And he’s got a girlfriend, the seemingly hapless Bunny (Jennifer Jason Leigh). And then there’s Ronnie, Artie and Bananas’ equally crazy teenage son, who’s planning to blow up the Pope during his visit to New York.
Remember this is 1971, and the Vietnam War is raging. A lot of things were being blown up and there was a general sense of confusion and violence in the culture. All the characters in “House of Blue Leaves” are hoping for something, including a deaf Hollywood starlet (Alison Pill) who pays the Shaughnessy’s a tragic visit. And then of course there are the nuns (headed up here by Mary Beth Hurt). They’re an odd unlikable bunch, maybe the worst nuns who ever set foot on a stage. They are also hilariously wacky.
No revival will ever be as good as something we saw the first time. I can remember clearly John Mahoney and Swoozie Kurtz as Artie and Bananas from 1986. They were revelatory. And yet, Ben Stiller has given Artie a new sense of desperation, Edie Falco has toned Bananas down to a human level, and Jennifer Jason Leigh brings new laughs to Bunny’s weird world. John Guare’s play gets more interesting under David Cromer’s restrained direction. And who knew Ben Stiller could play the piano and sing?