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Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 14, 2018

Finn Faulconer, Kate MacCluggage, Jason O’Connell
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

According to a program note, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was inspired to write his first play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, after leading a reading group on The Odyssey. The play, which is currently in revival at the Gene Frankel Theatre, uses the basic premise of Homer's epic poem but looks at it as if through the distorted lens of a shotgun. The now almost fifty-year-old absurdist drama is very much an artifact of its time, but it still has a good deal of relevance in our current hypermasculinized and gun-obsessed climate.

Wanda June premiered Off Broadway in the fall of 1970, and a few months later the production moved to Broadway, where it ran for 96 performances. The cast included Kevin McCarthy, Marsha Mason, and William Hickey. (Dianne Wiest was an understudy.) The play was made into an unsuccessful film in 1972 with Vonnegut serving as screenwriter.

Vonnegut fans will recognize the genre-busting conceits and madcap non sequiturs, and the play's antiwar, antigun satirical focus is pointed and unambiguous. Indeed, the evening begins matter-of-factly with one of the main characters announcing, "This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing—and those who don't."

The plot, however, isn't quite so simple with its twists and turns through the space-time continuum. The Odysseus character, here named Harold Ryan (Jason O'Connell), has been held captive for eight years in the Amazon with his pilot and sidekick, Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino). Looseleaf's main claim to fame is as one of the bombardiers on Nagasaki, but he is now racked with ambivalence.

Harold's wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has not been holding off a hundred-some suitors in her husband's absence as did her precursor in Homer's tale. Actually, she has been entertaining a total of two. When the play opens, she is engaged to be married to one of the men, Dr. Norbert Wooly (Matt Harrington), a physician who is the diametric opposite of Harold. (The other suitor, played by Kareem Lucas, is a vacuum salesman and a Harold acolyte.) Wooly describes himself as a healer, and he forthrightly philosophizes, "Gentleness must replace violence everywhere, or we are doomed." To reiterate, this is not a subtly satirical play.

Charlotte Wise and Craig Wesley Divino
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Determined to regain his domicile dominance and make a manly-man out of his son Paul (Finn Faulconer), Harold settles back into his jungle-adorned home. The Park Avenue apartment vulgarly displays his animal head trophies, and even the animal-yowl doorbells (there are two) add to the predatory atmosphere. (Brittany Vasta designed the clever and appropriately garish 1970's inflected set in which the living room walls are as porous as Vonnegut's dramaturgical fourth wall. Kudos also to Christopher Metzger's gaudy, polyester costumes and Drew Florida's dreamlike lighting.)

The play includes a few flashbacks and makes periodic excursions to heaven, where we meet the play's title character (Charlotte Wise). Wanda June is the name of a child on an unclaimed birthday cake bought for a last-minute party for Paul. The ill-fated birthday girl had been killed by an ice-cream truck, but she cheerily informs us that she has no regrets since heaven is most preferable to earth. Apparently, denizens there play constant rounds of shuffleboard while people on earth bully each other, start wars, and kill other living things for sport. Even with the occasional tornado in heaven, who wouldn't want to be there?

While Wanda June is not a great play, it is certainly one worth seeing. It lacks the underlying menace of a Harold Pinter work, and it does not have the antiwar absurdist sting of early David Rabe. It is, though, boldly theatrical and has its share of Vonnegut's trademark lunacy and deliciously lowbrow humor.

Under Jeff Wise's brash direction, the Wheelhouse Theater cast is uniformly strong. As Harold, O'Connell effectively blusters and bellows through his scenes. A cross between a Hemingway hero and Stanley Kowalksi, O'Connell's Harold is distilled feral machismo. He also alternates as a Nazi officer in heaven, who is perniciously fey and cloyingly effete.

As the not-so-long suffering wife, MacCluggage plays the role as a rather dim and sexually repressed 1950s housewife, but she demonstrates the moral and intellectual strength required to hold her own in a chauvinist society. MacCluggage also plays Mildred, Harold's dead and drunken former wife, who represents the collateral damage caused by vicious men.

The play overstays its welcome in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, but in this production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June there is certainly much to celebrate.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Through April 28
Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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