HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE

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Written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Directed by Jeff Wise

Though the term “toxic masculinity” wasn’t in wide usage in 1970, there’s little doubt as to where Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was aiming his rage when he penned this absurdist meditation on war, gender and class in mid-century America. In a nation battered by defeat in Vietnam, political assassinations at home, and a host of other social upheavals, it’s easy to understand why Vonnegut – himself a WWII veteran and POW- sought to blow up the outdated norms that had gotten us into this mess.

In a luxury New York festooned with hunting trophies, Penelope Ryan (Kate MacCluggage) struggles to move on with her life. Her husband, big game hunter and decorated war veteran Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell) has disappeared while searching for diamonds in the Amazon. He’s been gone long enough to be considered legally dead, and Penelope is open to the idea of remarrying. Her suitors include boring-but-decent vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas) and peacenik intellectual Dr. Norbert Woodley (Matt Harrington). Penelope’s son Paul (Finn Faulconer) doesn’t approve of either of the guys, especially the “fairy” doctor. He believes his dad will come home someday. This seems unlikely, as Harold and his trusted pilot Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) can hardly survived eight years in the rain forest. As fate would have it, though, Paul is right. Ryan and Looseleaf come marching home again and Penelope is forced to adjust yet another set of unexpected circumstances. Part John Wayne, part British Imperialist Explorer (and more than a hint of Hemingway, the dominant image of Great American Author at the time), Ryan seems to be expecting a hero’s welcome. But he’s in for a rude awakening. In his absence, the world has changed in ways he could never have predicted. No longer interested in playing the beta female, Penelope refuses wait on Ryan and locks the bedroom door when he tries to initiate sex. Likewise Dr. Woodley, whose hands have never held anything more dangerous than a violin, seems to be the kind of guy that gets respect these days. Unlike Nazis and rhinos, these new social foes can’t simply be felled with a bullet or a knife. Ryan will have to adopt new strategies, or face the fact that his societal species is now on the endangered list. As these conflict simmer, a few fanciful touches are thrown into the mix.  Several scenes take place in heaven, where Hitler, Jesus, Einstein and a little girl named Wanda June (Charlotte Wise/ Brie Zimmer) engage in a lively game of shuffleboard (apparently the admission requirements aren’t as high as we’ve been led to believe).

One would think, in the age of Kavanaugh, that the play’s vitriolic lampooning of male entitlement would make seem as relevant ever. Unfortunately, thought much of the script’s heavy-handed satire feels dated. Overinflated machismo is hardly the world’s most challenging target and, while some of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE is inventive and funny, it ultimately feels longer on indignation that inspiration. Vonnegut’s humor lands more forcefully when he focuses on more downbeat characters like Colonel Harper. Unlike the colorful Ryan, Loose Leaf exhibits no bravado and little to say about his military service. Yet it was he who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 people. Here, the playwright makes an intriguing point about society’s numbness to the horrors of war. It’s often the Regular Joes, the decent-hearted Harpers of the world rather than the swashbuckling Ryans, who are sent to do society’s most gruesome tasks. When it’s all over, they shrug and get on with their lives. And so it goes. Another provocative  moment occurs when Dr. Woodley goes toe to toe with the bellicose Harold in a verbal sparring match. The great proponent of piece seethes with a fierce desire to obliterate his rival, if only intellectually. Even pacifists, it appears, have a killer instinct.

Regardless of the script’s unevenness, at least it affords its cast an opportunity to display their stellar skills. O’Connell, whose voice and physiognomy recall a young Orson Welles, finds the arch humor and glimpses of vulnerability between the beats of Harold’s bloviation. He also does a delightful turns as one of Ryan’s felled foes, a German S.S. officers who recounts atrocious war crimes with the casual tone of raconteur entertaining friends at a cocktail party.  The rest of the remarkable ensemble, though not served as big a helping of scenery to chew,  prove themselves adept at balancing caricature with emotional authenticity. Director Jeff Wise, aided by an inventive design team, evokes Vonnegut’s surreal universe with imagination and panache. 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE continues through November 29, 2018 at the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets and information: tickets.dukeon42.org

 

 

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