by JK Clarke
Every so often there is a comic actor who takes command of a stage in a way that either delights or chagrins audience members, and often other actors, but who nonetheless declare their presence in a powerful and entertaining fashion. And good directors know this type when they see them, casting them in vehicles that will benefit from these actors. One such production is Wheelhouse Theater Company’s latest venture, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June, running through November 29 at The Duke on 42nd Street following on the heels of its initial run at The Gene Frankel Theatre in last spring. And one such actor is Jason O’Connell, who’s dominated the stage in such productions as Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility as well as Hudson Valley Shakespeare/Pearl Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Happy Birthday Wanda June, published in 1971 between the releases of Vonnegut’s best known novels, Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, is marked by a similar simple, straightforward style and biting satirical content. It’s the story of a Park Avenue woman, Penelope (a wonderful Kate MacCluggage), who lives with her 13-year-old son Paul (talented young Finn Faulconer). She has two suitors, Dr. Norbert Woodly (Wheelhouse Founder, Matt Harrington), the hippie pacifist doctor who lives across the hall and Herb (Kareem Lucas), a vacuum cleaner salesman. Her husband, Harold (Jason O’Connell), has been missing in the Amazon Rainforest (where he was on an expedition hunting gargantuan diamonds) for eight years, and has only recently been officially declared dead.
We are initially introduced to the various characters by Penelope, who breaks the fourth wall and explains the situation to the audience. “This is a tragedy,” she says, “When it’s done, my face will be as white as the snows of Kilimanjaro.” The characters scoff at each other for their personality flaws, then walk off stage through a deconstructed actual wall (just frame) at stage right. The play rests on the exaggerated imbalance between Harold, the ultimate he-man, hunter and warrior; and Dr. Woodly, a counterculture counterpoint to everything Harold stands for.
Complications arrive when, on the night the play begins, Harold and his traveling companion Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino)—the pilot who dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki—show up . . . alive. And it’s his birthday. O’Connell’s Harold is an outsized character for the ages: he’s as feral and predatory as the wild game he hunts. He sniffs, stalks and intimidates his prey, which in this case are his wife’s two suitors. His son, who’d idolized and mythologized him in absentia is taken aback by the reality of his father’s brutishness. Meanwhile, we are jerked out of “reality” by a visit from Wanda June (alternately played by Brie Zimmer and Charlotte Wise), an eight year old girl in a party dress who’s just died in an extraordinarily tragic and darkly comic manner. She’s the first of a string of visits from dead characters, most of whom comment directly or indirectly on the banality of life. Classic Vonnegut stuff, this.
What O’Connell manages to do, along with director Jeff Wise, is to erase the outdatedness that’s hard to ignore in Vonnegut’s work (not unlike the concurrently and coincidentally running Mother Night, which conversely doesn’t really stand the test of time). O’Connell, not unlike famous comic impersonators before him like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams (but not quite at their level), is a dose of mania, popping in and out of characters and caricatures that are both amusing and infuse the scene with greater nuance. To be sure, it’s a style that’s off-putting to some audience members while enchanting to others. Brittany Vasta’s exaggerated apartment interior setting, featuring jungle themed wall-paper and mounted heads of wild game slaughtered by Harold, blends well with Harold’s gold chained alpha male, shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest (costumes, Christopher Metzger). Add to it Mark Van Hare’s terrific sound design, featuring doorbells that are the roars of a lion (front door) and the cry of a hyena (back door) But it’s O’Connell’s performance sets that locks in the outsizedness and absurdity, making it all work together.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a delightful, wonderfully acted and directed performance that delivers a meaningful message but without hammering the audience over the head and concurrently providing a ton of laughs. It’s just the sort of distraction we all could use about now.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Through November 29 at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). Two hours, fifteen minutes with one intermission. www.Dukeon42nd.org
Photos: Jeremy Daniel