Arts Feature

Dreams Meet Reality in The House of Blue Leaves

Obie-Winning Dark Comedy Opens Friday at Trustus

By James Harley
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

We all have dreams of how we would like to live our lives, but for most of us they remain just that: dreams. Why exactly is that?

Well, for one thing, our society seems to have created a sort of aspiration inflation. It’s not enough just to seek happiness anymore; in the minds of many, celebrity is needed, too. But we can’t all be celebrities. Another obstacle for some is a sense of entitlement — but other people are not going to make your dreams come true.

Meet Artie Shaughnessy, an unhappily married zookeeper in Queens, New York, with glorious visions of a better life elsewhere as a songwriter. Artie gets a slight taste of his dream as a pianist in seedy lounges around the city, but every night ends with his return to the reality of home, where his schizophrenic wife, Bananas, awaits. Of course, he can delay that with a stop at his mistress Bunny’s apartment downstairs, but is that really an ideal life?

Intrigued yet? There’s also Artie’s son, Ronny, who has recently gone AWOL from Fort Dix; and Billy, Artie’s old friend with potentially promising Hollywood connections. Go ahead and throw in a visit by the Pope and a batch of thieving, beer-guzzling nuns, and you have The House of Blue Leaves, an Obie Award-winning dark comedy by John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), opening this weekend at Trustus Theatre.

While the comic element of over-the-top, freakish characterizations is strong, director Robin Gottlieb brings an interesting artistic vision to the story, seeing it as not only dark but actually bordering on tragicomedy.

“The challenges of the show are plentiful,” Gottlieb says. “It fluctuates between real and surreal, dream and nightmare.”

“The script’s dominant themes are humiliation and dreams,” she continues. “All of these characters have very big dreams, but no real way to obtain them on their own. They are waiting for someone else to make their dreams come true, and ultimately, they are all very humiliated by their own dreams. It is very tragic. The combination of the humor and pathos in this show has always spoken to me.”

And the audience can’t avoid being pulled into the drama. The show includes a high degree of interaction, as the characters frequently address the audience.

“I think the audience will have a tremendous experience watching this show, and actually intimately experiencing this show,” Gottlieb says. “I also think they would have a different experience every time, if they were to see it more than once. It is such a layered piece. On the outside, it is a very funny comedy, with hysterical dialogue — especially if you’re twisted like I am — yet it is more complicated than that. It delves into how society values celebrity, and at times, even masks celebrity as religion. It deals with the lengths we will go to in order to establish celebrity status.”

When asked about the twisted, unconventional nature of the humor, Gottlieb describes it as being so thought provoking that its full impact may not be felt immediately.

“I think people will laugh a lot during the show, think a little during the show, and think a lot after the show.”

Though set in 1965 and first staged in 1966, Gottlieb finds The House of Blue Leaves relevant today in that it ultimately deals with basic human desires, including her own.

“I first read this script 20 years ago and connected with it immediately,” she says. “Although the characters and situation are extreme, I found each of them highly relatable at different points in my life. They are very human to me. Having read this script dozens of times over the years I feel like I’ve grown up with them. This play is also what initially inspired me to want to direct theatre one day.”

So, in essence, Trustus Theatre’s production of The House of Blue Leaves is a dream come true for director Gottlieb, whether or not Artie Shaughnessy gets to come along for the ride. 

The House of Blue Leaves runs May 9-24 at Trustus Theatre. For more information or tickets call 254-9732 or visit

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