Times Theater Writer

Even if plenty's lost in the transposition, the Vivian Beaumont revival of "The House of Blue Leaves" ("American Playhouse," 9 p.m., PBS, Channel 28) cannot deny the volcanic force of this 1971 play by John Guare. A brilliant sendup of the pervasive insanity that commands our lives, it spews a black hilarity bordering on farce that, until the play's final and--ironically--tenderest moments, hides the ferocity of the vision.

Not that this story of Artie Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), a zookeeper who'd rather write songs, married to a dingbat named Bananas (Swoosie Kurtz), can be so easily explained. Set against the canvas of the Pope's visit to New York on Oct. 4, 1965, Bananas' struggle to remain sane in the face of the disintegration of her life drowns in a sea of peripheral madness.

First there's pushy neighbor Bunny (Christine Baranski), Artie's blowzy girlfriend, determined to marry Artie once he commits Bananas, so they can fly to Hollywood and triumph with Billy (Richard Portnow), Artie's friend turned Hollywood producer. Then there's Artie's and Bananas' son (Ben Stiller), a Vietnam draftee gone AWOL with plans to blow up the Pope.

The plans go awry and the wrong people explode, including two of three irreverent nuns who'd come to see the Pope--plus Corrinna Stroller (Julie Hagerty), Billy's stone-deaf movie star girlfriend, who'd come looking for an aural miracle. When the disconsolate Billy meets the unstoppable Bunny, comedy takes a dive into the tragedy it always wanted to be.

"Blue Leaves" has deep, dark fangs. And despite director Kirk Browning's perfunctory conversion of the show to this other medium (he's done little more than photograph the Jerry Zaks staging of it on the Plymouth stage, where the production moved), its comic passion mounts in spite of itself and, by the second act, delivers a wallop.

For this we are indebted to Guare, Zaks and to the dead aim of this cast. Baranski almost steals the show from an unusually subdued Kurtz, with Mahoney, Stiller and Hagerty coming in vivid seconds. This electronic version is no substitute for the real thing, but it's a better-than-decent facsimile of one of the most durable of modern American classics.

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