The reputation of Kurt Vonnegut nowadays rests on his comic novels—a mainstay of 1960s counterculture. He combined flights of hilarious whimsy with science fiction and sharp satire in works such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). But at the height of his powers, Vonnegut also wrote a Broadway play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The play may not be a masterpiece, but the production by the Wheelhouse Theater Company under director Jeff Wise breathes screwball life into it with strong performances and unabashed theatricality.
Wanda June is a version of The Odyssey. The twist is that the missing husband is an ogre and the suitors for the presumably widowed Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) are decent men: Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington), a physician who lives with his mother across the hall, and Herb Shuttle (Kareem Lucas), a vacuum cleaner salesman with unbounded admiration for Penelope’s late husband, Harold Ryan. An adventurer, Harold—a combination of Odysseus, Stanley Kowalski, Indiana Jones and one of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds—disappeared into the jungle eight years earlier with a companion, Col. Looseleaf Harper, and has been declared dead.
Now Penelope is about to choose a new spouse, although her son Paul (Finn Faulconer) revels in the memory of the great man and dislikes both Norbert and Herb. In fact, none of Harold’s surroundings (brilliantly rendered by set designer Brittany Vasta and sound designer Mark Van Hare) have changed since Harold’s disappearance: not the mounted heads on the walls, nor the leopard-print furniture, nor the doorbells—lion roars for the front door, hyena barks for the back. If “it’s a jungle out there,” as Penelope says worriedly when Paul goes to Central Park, it’s a jungle in the home as well.
Vonnegut’s plot ranges from the present to the past—there are flashbacks to World War II revealing Harold’s exploits in hunting and killing a notorious Nazi known as the Beast of Yugoslavia, and to the night he met Penelope, who was working at a drive-through restaurant window. There also are leaps to heaven itself, where the late Beast chums around with Harold’s third wife, the alcoholic Mildred (MacCluggage), and Wanda June of the title, a young girl who was struck and killed by an ice cream truck just before her birthday. On earth, Herb buys her unclaimed birthday cake at the bakery and brings it to Penelope’s to mollify Paul, who is angry that his mother forgot Harold’s birthday. All they have to do is scrape off Wanda June’s name.
Under Wise’s direction, the disparate elements blend together like some psychedelic head trip. And Vonnegut supplies a grab bag of observations about serious subjects: manhood, gun violence, environmental pollution, animal slaughter, and, of course, war. All remain startlingly relevant.
Most crucial to the production’s success is Jason O’Connell’s riveting performance as Harold, even if he often tips into excess. He is a bullying, mocking, lying, misogynistic thug, by turns distasteful and amusing. At his most brutish, O’Connell snarls his lines and adopts a simian swagger; he shapes the air with his hands; and he even sniffs it like an animal. He scorns Woodly as a milquetoast—and, indeed, Matt Harrington inhabits well that nurturing male stereotype that bubbled up in men of the 1960s.
The other actors are also fine. MacCluggage invests Penelope with a blithe aloofness, and her Mildred is soddenly blowsy. As Looseleaf Harper, Harold’s dim sidekick, Craig Wesley Divino invests his character with soul-searching—he was a pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki—as well as comic confusion. Returning to the Ryans’ apartment after showing up unannounced at his wife’s door, he has a feeling that things didn’t go well.
Penelope [to Harold]: Alice got married again.
Looseleaf: She did?
Penelope: You didn’t even find that out?
Looseleaf: There was so much going on.
Penelope: She married an accountant named Stanley Kestenbaum.
Looseleaf: So that’s it! … Everyone was yelling, “Kestenbaum. Kestenbaum.” I thought it was some foreign language.
Vonnegut has sprinkled the whole text with snappy one-liners. In heaven, the Beast (O’Connell again) remembers Harold with vulgar relish: “That Harold Ryan—he says he spoke to me in perfect German? He talks German like my ass chews gum.” Although Vonnegut’s works are no longer part of the zeitgeist, Wheelhouse is to be commended not just for bringing back one of his least-remembered efforts, but for showing it so much love.
Wheelhouse Theater Company’s production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June plays through April 28 at the Gene Frankel Theater (24 Bond St. in the East Village). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. April 15 and 22 and at 2 p.m. April 28. For tickets and information, visit wheelhouse.theater.