Reality has caught up with The House of Blue Leaves. When John Guare's black comedy was brand-spanking-new, in 1971, a papal assassination attempt was off the radar, celebrity cultism and the American Idol paradigm had not overtaken most Americans, and the sight of a Catholic altar boy had a very different connotation. So much has taken place since Blue Leaves copped its first "Best Play" awards.
But the comedy still offers laughs and bitter insights, which have tempted the Summer Company into a production that's uncomfortably entertaining. This was never supposed to be "nice," folks. Yes, there are laughs, but the snarky cynicism provided by Nixon-era theater revisiting the mid-'60s has been surpassed in the 21st century by the institutions then lambasted, e.g. religion and politics.
The House of Blue Leaves — the title alludes to a beautiful misconception about the grounds of a madhouse — focuses on a Queens family on the date of Pope Paul VI's 1965 visit to New York. The characters are overdrawn, wildly self-absorbed yet often sympathetic. In hindsight, however, most of their behavior is repugnant — and thus the strength of the script. Director Leah Cassella manages this comedic paradox with a large and somewhat uneven cast, a gorgeously detailed set, a solid pace and the occasional sartorial anachronism.
Ron Siler-Waruszewski deftly underplays the central character, Artie, a wannabe songwriter but really, literally a zookeeper. Sarah Murtha chews scenery and a nearly impenetrable Queens accent as his mistress, and Caitlin Northup is more perky than schizo as his wife. Also notable are Natalie Moretti as a starlet struggling to be polite; Marsha Mayhak as an almost-wannabe nun; and a creative production team.
How bizarre 1965 was from the vantage point of 1971 smugness. Now, from more than four decades away, the humor in The House of Blue Leaves is broader but still nasty.