Revisiting Vonnegut’s Wacky But Relevant Satire, Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known play didn’t get a very good review from Clive Barnes when it opened off-off Broadway in 1970. But the legendary New York Times reviewer called it “inspired idiocy” and said “There was not much I found to admire in the play, but a surprising amount to love.” Happy Birthday, Wanda June isn’t performed very often. The last evidence I can find of its staging in Chicago was a 1991 production by a company called Bad Rep Theater Company. But I had the good fortune to find it playing last week at an off-Broadway venue near Times Square called the Duke on 42nd Street. Actually, I was there before, in 2004, when Chicago Shakes transferred its bloody Rose Rage (an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, V and VI condensed and staged in a Victorian slaughterhouse) to the Duke.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a wacky satire on American culture and our obsessions with guns and warfare. Vonnegut was inspired to write it after rereading Homer’s Odyssey during a Great Books series. His first 1960 version was titled Penelope and he rewrote it years later with the title Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The title character appears only in dream sequences; she’s in heaven playing shuffleboard, having been run over by an ice cream truck.

While I was writing my review, I remembered a play called Penelope that riffed on the same story (warrior comes home from the wars after many years; finds his wife’s suitors hanging around) staged by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012. The play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and directed by Amy Morton was memorably manic. The four suitors, hanging around an empty swimming pool, all clad in Speedos (which should never be worn by men over 18), were four notable Chicago actors: Scott Jaeck, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts and Ian Barford.

Through the magic of their plots, characters and language, Mr. Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights and poets remain bristlingly relevant. And so does Vonnegut. I recently reread and reviewed his early novel, Player Piano, a story about a society in which humanity had become superfluous. And although Wanda June is hardly a perfect play, you will find it rousingly roisterous and more than a little relevant. Here’s part of my review of Wanda June, which you can read in its entirety over on Third Coast Review.

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If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut reader, Happy Birthday, Wanda June will sound familiar. I was sure I had read it long ago when I was devouring everything he wrote. But no, I never read Wanda June. It’s not a novel; it’s one of Vonnegut’s short list of plays and the only one most people have heard of, because it also was a 1971 film.

But if you’re in New York, or can get there by November 29, you have the chance to see this wacky dark satire of American culture and America’s propensity for war and death, filtered through Vonnegut’s mad genius lens. Wheelhouse Theater Company is presenting Wanda June, smartly directed by Jeffrey Wise, at the Duke on 42nd Street, a cozy compact theater venue tucked in among the Times Square chaos.

Vonnegut’s premise, with a strong H/T to Homer’s Odyssey, is that Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell), a warrior and big-game hunter who disappeared eight years ago while hunting for diamonds in the Amazon rain forest, returns home. Harold was declared legally dead and now his wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has two suitors, much to the distress of their 12-year-old son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), who believes his father will return.

Et cetera. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Wise’s cast is uniformly strong, with O’Connell’s manic Harold standing out when he plays the Beast of Yugoslavia too. MacCluggage’s performance shows Harold how American society and the role of women have changed during his eight-year absence. Charlotte Wise is perkily smart as Wanda June; she alternates with Brie Zimmer in that role. The scenic design and sound effects are smashingly appropriate. (See full review for credits.)

Please read the full review here.

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