John Pankow in The House of Blue Leaves
(© Craig Schwartz)
John Pankow in The House of Blue Leaves
(© Craig Schwartz)
Easily the first thing to catch the eye when walking into the house of the newly refurbished Mark Taper Forum, which is being inaugurated by Nicholas Martin's less-than-exciting revival of John Guare's 1970 play, The House of Blue Leaves, is the big blue glittery curtain encircling all but a small downstage portion of the thrust stage. In front of the curtain is an upright piano sitting on a small, carpeted platform; an electric blue neon sign saying El Dorado Bar & Grill is suspended from above. Forget the Taper's snazzy new carpeting, the relief of seriously cool air conditioning, the blessed roominess of the new plush seats replacing their hip-pinching predecessors. The stage draws all the attention.

However, after Artie Shaughnessy (John Pankow), a zookeeper and aspiring songwriter, sits at the piano, warbles a few ditties to his El Dorado audience and downs the beer he had to pay for himself, we finally see what's really behind the curtain. As it rises, the platform pulls back and settles into place in Artie's chilly apartment in Sunnyside, Queens (impeccably designed by David Korins).

It's October 4, 1965, and The Pope is passing through Queens on his way to Manhattan to implore the United Nations to bring peace to the world. Meanwhile, Artie is dreaming of peace in his life. He longs to find success with his hopelessly mediocre songs, put his crazy wife, Bananas (Kate Burton), in a lovely rest home, and live a happily-ever-after life with his girlfriend and downstairs neighbor, Bunny (Jane Kaczmarek). It ain't gonna happen.

Without question, Blue Leaves is not an easy show to do, and this amalgam of dreams, desperation, and dark comedy needs a lighter touch than Martin's to get this topsy-turvy world just right. That's not to say that he and his cast don't try really hard to present an entertaining show; but instead of effervescent and off-kilter, we get ponderous and effortful.

Act II has its own specific problems. A pandemonic sequence with a group of visiting nuns (Rusty Schwimmer, Mary Kay Wulf, Angela Goethals), an M.P. (James B. Harnagel), Artie, and his bomb-toting son, Ronnie (James Immekus) not only lacks the necessary escalation of tensions and emotions, but the choreography is patently obvious and rehearsal-like. And when Artie's old friend Billy (Diedrich Bader) shows up, a transition in relationships flies by virtually unnoticed.

As for the actors, Kaczmarek, who isn't naturally well suited to her role, is furthest off the mark. Her Bunny feels too solid, too grounded in normalcy to be comfortable in the fanciful, swirling, eccentric world of a Guare play. Burton gives the surest performance of anyone, but since Bananas is off in her own world anyway, she has a bit of a blue bubble for protection. Pankow lands somewhere in the middle of the two, but still comes across like a good actor stuck in the wrong show.

"All my life I've been treated like an old shoe," Bunny tells Artie. "You turned me into a glass slipper." While the old Taper was certainly never "an old shoe," it certainly sparkles now like a gorgeous glass slipper. Would that the same could be said of its first production.