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Lunacy a cover for chilling aspects of ‘House of Blue Leaves’

Kelli Strickland plays Bananas and Jon Steinhagen is Artie Shaughnessy in John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves," at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography)

Although it bears a distinctly poetic title, and can generate occasional bursts of off-kilter laughter, John Guare’s career-making 1971 play “The House of Blue Leaves” — now in a fittingly manic revival by Raven Theatre — is one exceedingly disturbed and disturbing piece of work. And while you might well be distracted by all its lunatic energy, the nuthouse environment that escalates with each scene will not fully prepare you for the tragic outcome Guare really has in store.

Watching the Raven production, incisively directed by JoAnn Montemurro, also is a reminder that Guare had his finger on the pulse of many phenomena that would only become magnified in ensuing decades: the obsession with celebrity (from Hollywood types to the pope); the tension between those deemed “successful” and those seen as “failures”; the causes and manifestations of mental illness, and, yes, even terrorism. As for his attitude towards women, let’s just say it is more than problematic. It’s all enough to make your head spin, and indeed, heads do continually spin in this play.

Saray Hayes is Bunny and John Steinhagen is Artie Shaughnessy in "The House of Blue Leaves" at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography)

Sarah Hayes is Bunny and John Steinhagen is Artie in “The House of Blue Leaves” at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography)

When: Through June 18
Where: Raven Theatre,
6157 N. Clark
Tickets: $42
Info: (773) 338-2177;
Run time: 2 hours and
20 minutes with one intermission

The place is Sunnyside, a working-class neighborhood of Queens just a bridge crossing (but an eternity) away from the glitter of Manhattan. The date (and it is crucial) is Oct. 4, 1965, when Pope Paul VI landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport for what was the first-ever papal visit to the United States.

Among those who will line the streets for the pope’s motorcade into Manhattan are Artie Shaughnessy (Jon Steinhagen), a ne’er-do-well, laughably mediocre songwriter who readily admits he is “too old to be a young talent”; his seriously manic-depressive wife, Bananas (Kelli Strickland), who is not terribly interested in the whole thing, and his wildly enthusiastic girlfriend of four years, Bunny (Sarah Hayes), who lives “downstairs” from their chaotic madhouse of an apartment and hopes the pope will help her. (Applause for Ray Toler’s set and Mary O’Dowd’s priceless “set dressing” and props.)

Bunny is determined to marry Artie and make him a success, and she pressures him to leave Bananas (he has already made plans for her to be put in a mental institution that he describes in the words of the play’s title), so that they can head out to California. The plan is to get some help from Artie’s childhood friend, Bill Einhorn (a deftly oblivious Noah Simon), now a fabled movie director he hasn’t seen for years. But on this day in 1965, more insanity than usual erupts in Artie’s apartment, including the wholly unexpected return of his son, Ronnie (a spot-on turn by Derek Herman), a young soldier who was to have gone to Vietnam but instead has gone AWOL. As unsuccessful and thwarted as his father, Ronnie arrives with a box of dynamite, planning to make a name for himself by blowing up the motorcade.

Also showing up at the apartment are three quite unorthodox nuns (Sophia Menendian, Kristen Williams and Shariba Rivers) in search of warmth and beer, and Einhorn’s elegant second wife, Corinna Stroller (Jen Short nails her),  a former actress who just happens to be deaf, although she keeps this a secret.

Steinhagen, a wonderfully natural actor (and witty playwright in his own right), zips through the role with just the right sense of sweaty desperation as his apartment becomes the battlefield for the two women in his life who are each more deluded, manipulative and starved for affection than the other, though in very different ways.

Strickland (who, in her “spare time,” serves as executive director of the Hypocrites), beautifully captures the pain and loneliness of a mentally ill woman who sees all too clearly what has become of her life, and who wishes for nothing more than to be able to feel emotion even as her pills suppress it. Hayes plays Bunny — a fine cook who refuses to make a meal for Artie until they are married — with fully comic misdirected energy and enthusiasm, capturing the essence of a woman who refuses to accept disappointment.

Many of the characters are given a chance to address the audience directly, explaining the dreams they have for themselves in the most precise (and often delusional) terms. As for Einhorn, the Hollywood legend, he pegs his old friend Artie as the man emblematic of his public, an Everyman who exists solely to appreciate his genius.

That brutal appraisal of Artie is just devastating enough to drive him over the edge. But as I’ve always believed after seeing this play, Guare finally takes things one nightmarish step too far.

Noah Simon plays Billy Einhorn, with Sarah Hayes as Bunny and Jon Steinhagen as Artie Shaughnessy in "The House of Blue Leaves" at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography)

Noah Simon plays Billy Einhorn, with Sarah Hayes as Bunny and Jon Steinhagen as Artie, in “The House of Blue Leaves” at Raven Theatre. (Photo: Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography)