By Ron Fassler
Though mostly known as a novelist and short story writer, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (1922-2007) wrote a few plays in his lifetime, one of which, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, had its premiere off-Broadway in the winter of 1970. Proving popular with audiences (as well as a few critics), it moved a few months later to a small Broadway playhouse called the Edison on West 47thStreet (now out of commission, but still in use as a nightclub). I saw Wanda June in early 1971 at the height of my teenage theatre going years, when I attempted to attend every show that came to Broadway (and mostly succeeded). And at that time, as a young anti-war protester of the Vietnam war, I was also a part of Vonnegut’s targeted audience for his seminal novel Slaughterhouse Five,which had just been published in 1969. So it fell to reason that I was completely taken in a year later by the comedy in Wanda June, featuring as it did Vonnegut’s unique, off-beat stylings. In fact, I even paid to see it twice—something both rare and expensive for this thirteen-year-old ($3 a ticket, mind you).
So it was with great anticipation, that after more than forty-seven years, I would see Wanda June again, this time produced Off-Broadway by the Wheelhouse Theatre. It pleases me no end to report that the actors assembled on stage of the Gene Frankel Theatre do not disappoint, especially in the performance by Jason O’Connell in the leading role of Harold Ryan. He is enough to see the show all on its own.
As for the play itself, even if Vonnegut’s writing, once cutting edge is now somewhat duller, his absurdist take on the human condition has not dated at all. And if the plotting is clunky (which frankly, it always was), Vonnegut more than makes up for it up by his witty and thought-provoking dialogue, which will forever be linked as his trademark.
Wanda June is a riff on the return of Homer, a story nearly as old as time, with one “Harold” Ryan arriving out of the blue after an absence of eight years to surprise his third (and much younger wife, Penelope—get it?), and their twelve-year-old son. When you consider Harold’s leaving the United States in 1962, the changes he would have to contend with in 1970 are enough for a whole other play, but that’s not Vonnegut’s concern. The action never leaves the living room set (nicely detailed by Brittany Vasta), except on occasion, when we visit the playwright’s unique vision of heaven (which is where poor ten-year-old Wanda June resides, the victim of having been run over by an ice cream truck). These side trips are inspired respites from the play’s central story, which mainly deals with Harold’s inability to re-connect to a family he has never known. His brutal machismo, matched to an intellectually brilliant, swaggering, take-no-prisoners Alpha personality, makes for a complicated protagonist.
Which is where O’Connell’s performance comes in. He is appropriately larger than life, and yet is capable of bringing his powerful vocal abilities down to a quiet whisper, all the better for menace, as well as necessary introspective moments. For if Harold is all bluster and fury, then he is saddled to being one-dimensional, which O’Connell never is. He also takes on a secondary role in two scenes that transpire in Heaven, that in the original was played by another actor. And for the record, Kate MacCluggage, in addition to her duties as Penelope, appears as Harold’s first wife (again, one cast with another actor originally). Though this was probably done for budgetary reasons to save on two salaries, I applaud director Jeff Wise’s ingenuity, as it totally worked. Overall, there were some very clever choices Wise made throughout the play, including his use of the theatre’s tight space, that allowed improvisatory wiggle-room for his actors to include audience members directly in the story telling. This devise is never overused and always welcome.
I must mention the whole company, who in addition to O’Connell, are all excellent: Craig Wesley Divino, Finn Faulconer, Matt Harrington, Kareem Lucas, Kate MacCluggage and nine-year-old Charlotte Wise (a relation to the director, possibly?), who claims in the program that this is her “world stage debut.” Congratulations, Charlotte.
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, NYC
Thru April 28.