‘The House of Blue Leaves’

Times Theater Critic

GROPING for a comfortable moral in John Guare’s classic black comedy “The House of Blue Leaves,” which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum in a sensational revival directed by Nicholas Martin, is a little like asking an escaped felon for some friendly advice. But one thing can safely be said: When it comes to trampling traditional family values, there’s nothing more brutalizing than a middle-aged guy with a frustrated dream.

Artie Shaughnessy (a pitch-perfect John Pankow) would like to be a man who needs no introduction, but this is precisely his problem. A zookeeper from Queens with a crazy wife and a sociopathic son in the military, he’s an outer-borough nobody who’s desperate to be a songwriting somebody -- preferably in Hollywood with his mistress, Bunny (Jane Kaczmarek, in riotous form), the floozy from downstairs who’s pulling out all the stops to get him to believe in a fantasy future.

Bananas (an affecting Kate Burton), Artie’s better half, wanders around their cramped apartment in a housedress and cardigan, emotionally anesthetized by pills yet self-aware enough to realize that her life has become a shipwreck. For a woman who’s about to be carted off to the funny farm, she’s arguably the sanest person of the lot.

But the bar is set pretty low when you consider the crowd that assembles at her home to see the pope, who’s motorcading into town later that day. In dizzying screwball fashion, the play gathers together a trio of beer-chugging nuns (headed by Rusty Schwimmer), a deaf starlet named Corrinna Stroller (lovely Mia Barron) and Artie and Bananas’ troubled kid, Ronnie (James Immekus), who’s gone AWOL and is carrying an explosive surprise for the pontiff.

Set in the Vietnam-escalating year of 1965 in a neighborhood that’s just a short subway trip from the “All in the Family” gang, “The House of Blue Leaves” might seem like an odd choice to inaugurate the reopening of the Taper after its technical- and comfort-enhancing $30-million spruce-up. Wouldn’t a freshly harvested homegrown work have been a more exciting way for artistic director Michael Ritchie to commence this next chapter of a theater that has such a storied track record of producing new writing?

That was my thinking going in, but this production is so revitalizing that Guare’s ruthless farce seems to be not just speaking directly to our age but mirroring its most pervasive pathologies. A far-away war rages, feelings are being pharmaceutically regulated, and all anyone cares about is stupid stardom.

Long before the sensationalizing 24-hour news cycle and the gossip-mongering Wild, Wild Web, “The House of Blue Leaves” revealed the roots of our narcissistic desire for the spotlight. Artie, who fears he’s “too old to be a young talent,” is sick of being an anonymous face in someone else’s audience. Banging out a hackneyed tune whenever there’s an opening, he wants his own 15 minutes of red-carpet roar, the kind of thrill ride he imagines is enjoyed by his old buddy Billy Einhorn (Diedrich Bader), a big-shot movie director he hopes will let him compose an Oscar-winning song for his next blockbuster.

Bunny is alert to the irony that “when famous people go to sleep at night, it’s us they dream of,” yet she can’t help fanning Artie’s egotistical flames. “Tables turn” she reminds him, hitching her desire to run off to California to his hope of becoming the go-to piano man for love themes.

Martin’s staging flows between comedy and tragedy while hilariously revving up to all-out farce when set designer David Korins’ Clifford Odets-style abode becomes increasingly populated.

Less buoyant than Jerry Zaks’ acclaimed 1986 revival at Lincoln Center, the Taper production takes a more realistic approach to the zaniness that while diminishing the number of laughs makes them somewhat more resonant and heartfelt.

Another notable difference: Burton’s Bananas doesn’t dominate the proceedings the way Swoosie Kurtz’s indelible performance did. Kurtz, looking like a fawn that had strayed onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, had an otherworldly quality that set the tone for Zaks’ helium-filled production.

Burton, on the other hand, offers a more grounded portrait -- she settles into the sallow skin of this poignant recluse and somberly gazes on as the adulterous lovebirds threaten to have her straitjacketed.

If Pankow’s rumpled, can’t-catch-a-break Artie is now the center of the piece, Kaczmarek’s Bunny, racing full speed ahead like an express train in hot pink, is the comic engine. Watching her tantalize her man with all the delicious dishes she’s going to prepare for him after they’re finally married provides a glimpse into a couple whose appetites have run amok from never having been satisfied.

There are a few stumbles along the way. Donald Holder’s otherwise atmospheric lighting goes through clumsy changes whenever one of the characters directly addresses the audience. The naturalistic set, framed in a fancy blue stage curtain, cops out on the metaphor of the title, which stands for the asylum awaiting Bananas. And the pope’s Yankee Stadium speech, perhaps seen as thematically heavy-handed, is unnecessarily muffled.

But the acting is top-notch across the board, which makes it easy to go along with Bunny’s belief that miracles are in the air, even if they’re of the “reverse” kind in which hardly anyone gets what they mistakenly think they need.

“The House of Blue Leaves,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends Oct. 19. $20-$62. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 2 hours.