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Stiller Sings in ‘Leaves’; Arianda Steals ‘Yesterday’: Review

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Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The House of Blue Leaves" in New York. The play is directed by David Cromer. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

April 26 (Bloomberg) -- Ben Stiller has a piquant family connection to John Guare’s fever dream comedy, “The House of Blue Leaves.”

His mother, Anne Meara, played a nun in the 1970 original production and later Stiller himself played Ronnie, the AWOL army recruit who has come home to Queens, New York to blow up the Pope -- to make a name for himself (how familiar a theme has that become?).

In the new revival, Stiller plays Ronnie’s father, Artie Shaughnessy, animal tender at the Central Park Zoo and author of the awful pop songs that open the play as Artie croaks them on open mic night at a local bar.

It’s 1965 and the Pope has arrived to plead before the United Nations for an end to the Vietnam War and to hold Mass at Yankee Stadium. Queens is overrun by nuns, tourists, the lame and the crippled, all clamoring for a view of the Popemobile as it wends its way from the airport to Manhattan.

Artie has his own preoccupations. His wife, Bananas, is, well bananas. His girlfriend, Bunny, will sleep with him but won’t cook for him until they’re married, because, as she admits, she’s far more gifted in the latter than the former. There are frozen Sisters on the roof and a surprise visit from Artie’s best friend, a big shot Hollywood filmmaker and his beautiful, deaf girlfriend.

Stiller needs more time to get a purchase on the role that made “Frasier’s” John Mahoney a star, but he’s funny and flummoxed and believable. Jennifer Jason Leigh is archly convincing as Bunny, dressed a la Jackie Kennedy, in David Cromer’s sensitive x-ray of a production.

Heart Stealer

But it’s Edie Falco who will steal your heart as Bananas, a depressive who fries up Brillo pads for hamburgers and drops down to all fours, heartbreakingly yipping and begging puppylike for Artie’s love. Gaunt, stringy and practically translucent, she’s so emotionally open that it may be all you can do to keep from running onstage to wrap your arms around her.

Through July 9 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ***

‘Born Yesterday’

There are two reasons to see the revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy, “Born Yesterday,” and they’re both named Nina Arianda. This actress, who made a splash last season in the off-Broadway show “Venus in Fur,” just knocks it out of the ballpark as Billie Dawn, the curvy chorus girl who landed a big one with thuggish millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock, played by Jim Belushi.

Kanin, who wrote some of the best Tracy and Hepburn comedies and created Billie for the peerless Judy Holliday, does a spin on the Pygmalion legend here. Harry hires hungry journalist Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard) to waken some brain cells in his dumb blonde girlfriend, who, cells awakened, opens her eyes to Harry’s abuses and eventually comes into her own.

Meanwhile, of course, Paul falls for his beautiful lump of clay. When he admits as much to her, Billie leans into him. “Lemme ask you,” she says. “Are you one of these talkers, or would you be innarested in a little action?”

As delivered by Arianda with a counterintuitive sweetness, the line isn’t merely funny, it’s revelatory. Here is a woman who knows her heart as well as her mind. It’s practically meta-funny.

Belushi is brutish without being engaging, and Leonard, one of our best stage actors, is oddly pallid in Doug Hughes’s spirited production. So go for Kanin’s savvy script and for one truly inspired comic performance.

Through July 31 at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: **1/2


What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Very Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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