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Dominion Stage's Bizarre "Blue Leaves"

Pope's visit triggers pandemonium.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI came to New York to seek peace as the Vietnam War was getting hot. The pandemonium a Papal visit can cause was the subject of a play written a few years later by John Guare, the playwright better known for "Six Degrees of Separation" and the musical versions of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Sweet Smell of Success."

Guare's confusingly titled "The House of Blue Leaves" (which has practically nothing to do with a house as it takes place in an apartment, or blue leaves as that apartment is located in New York's borough of Queens) is being presented by the Dominion Stage at Theatre One in the Gunston Arts Center. Directing the production is Matthew Randall who says he saw the show in the 1970s. He manages to recreate some of the solid feel that the then-popular form of loopy but disturbing "dark comedies" had during that period.

The evening is at its best in the first act, not just because most of the strongest cast members are introduced before intermission, but because the script is at its sharpest in the early going.

In that first act we meet a man who copes with a marriage to a woman he truly loves (but who has lost her own touch with reality) by clinging to his delusions of talent as a song writer and lounge singer (he's terrible at both) and by indulging in an affair with a kook of a cook who withholds not sex but culinary activities until she has a ring on her finger. There is also the secret wordless presence of a young man who the audience comes to suspect is the couple's soldier son.

Relations between these few characters are clearly and entertainingly established. Brian Turley does a fine job of not singing well, Karen Lange throws punch lines about with a particularly New York sensibility ("I didn't work at [fill in the blank] for nix!" becomes her mantra whenever she wants to beef up her credentials to win an argument) and Lois S. Walsh first convinces you her character is a total nut and then reveals the humanity beneath the surface.

The second act tries to be too many things at once as the author adds confusions and complications to create farce. A trio of nuns bang at the patio window having climbed up for a view of the Pope's motorcade; a movie starlet, too vain to admit to a hearing loss, shows up and promptly loses her hearing aids; a military policeman comes to arrest the AWOL soldier hiding in the closet at the same time that a "Man in White" arrives to take the wife off to an asylum.

Dominion's cast handles some, but not all of this overdrive. Elizabeth Ness is very good and very funny as the nearly deaf starlet and all three actresses playing nuns create well defined characters. Bob Cohen, on the other hand, can't quite overcome the problem of delivering his early lines with his back to the audience as the starlet's director. The most significant contribution of Steve Lada isn't his one sentence speech as the "Man in White" but, rather, his work staging the struggles and comic fight scenes including a marvelous flying leap executed with flair by Kevin Eaton as the AWOL soldier/son.

"The House of Blue Leaves" isn't produced very often, so this is a rare opportunity to see it played out on stage.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com>www.PotomacStages.com</a>). He can be reached at <a href=mailto:Brad@PotomacStages.com>Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.</i>