Matthew LaChiusa’s peripatetic acting troupe, American Repertory Theater of WNY – ART of WNY, to its clientele – has found new quarters, thanks to the visionary Sportsmens Americana Music Foundation. The community education group sees a collaboration between its music programs, existing and planned, and theater.
The new stage, in Black Rock, is called the 330 Theater, next door to the iconic Sportsmen’s Tavern, down an adjacent alley where a friendly door beckons. The place has been reworked, there are about 50 seats, and one can detect signs of faded glory. The 330 is small and there are challenges but it is home. ART’s spirits have been restored.
Foundation board member Angela Hastings said, “The theater space that we have created will accommodate both our education programs and ART’s new theater for performance. Music and theater go hand in hand. We believe that we can work together to become a big part of the arts in Buffalo.”
To celebrate the rebirth, LaChiusa has revived latter-day absurdist playwright John Guare’s dark and chaotic comedy, “The House of Blue Leaves,” a wild, unpredictable and ultimately chilling story of sad sack Artie Shaughnessy and his family and friends, a disparate and disturbed lot. Call them poster-children for dysfunction.
The characters in “Leaves” fail in some way in relating to another human being – their aspirations are skewed, their worlds awry. When they are on stage in various combinations, pandemonium reigns. Comedy, accompanied by a cruel streak, is king.
See if this makes any sense: It’s 1965 in Queens, on a day when Pope Paul VI is in New York to speak to the United Nations. Artie works at a zoo by day and after hours he performs at lounges, singing his own songs – awful tunes with worse lyrics – while dreaming of showbiz fame.
He mockingly calls his wife “Bananas” because of her fragile mental state. He thinks it’s time to commit her for treatment – and he’s encouraged to do so by ditzy but calculating downstairs neighbor and paramour, Bunny Flingus. Artie’s closet anarchist son, Ronnie, is AWOL from the Army, surfacing at home with a sinister package under his arm marked for the pope.
It gets more bizarre. Artie and Bunny plot their escape to fame and fortune. Everyone – except Bananas, who may be the sanest of the bunch, which includes three beer-swilling nuns, a deaf movie starlet and a shallow Hollywood boyhood chum of Artie – has a thing about fame and remembrance and legacy at any cost. There are few people to care about.
Drew McCabe returns to ART to ably direct this outlandish tale, but halfway through Act II, “Leaves” starts to run amok. Gratuitous, sophomoric mania takes over and stays until the final minutes of shiver and shock send playgoers home looking over their shoulders.
There is a fine cast. Robert Ernie Insana, as lovable loser Artie; Diane DiBernardo-Blenk, as sweet but befuddled Bananas; and Mara Westerling-Morris, as opportunistic Bunny, are unforgettable. Minutes are electric when the three do battle.
Other key players include Rick Lattimer as Ronnie, Maura Nolan, Scot Kaitanowski and Erica Lorenzetti. Completing the ensemble are Virginia Brannon, Lisa Sember, Eric Chancey and Kathleen Parker.
Guare once opined that theater is “a place of poetry, song, joy and darkness.” That aptly describes his “The House of Blue Leaves.”
“The House of Blue Leaves”
3 stars (out of four)
Comedy from American Repertory Theater of WNY, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through April 2 at the 330 Theater, 330 Amherst St.
Tickets $18 to $25, less if ordered online. For information, call 697-0837 or go to artofwny.org.