“You Look Like a Monkey, and You Smell Like One Too”
When the current Off-Broadway revival of famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s first play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, opened in mid-April, I had no room to squeeze it into my reviewing schedule. Ordinarily, with so many other shows to cover, I might simply have let it go. I discovered, however, that I had three strong reasons to be interested, so, when another opportunity to see it coincided with an opening on my calendar, I bit.
My three reasons: 1) the play received mostly warm reviews, including from the Times, and has been drawing a steady stream of theatregoers to its tiny Bond Street venue; 2) it stars Jason O’Connell, whose work I’d admired in Kate Hamill’s adaptations of classic novels, but even more so in his terrific one-man piece The Dork Knight; and 3) a good friend had been intimately involved in the workshop that preceded the play's New York premiere and wanted to see the work after all these years.
|Kate McCluggage, Finn Faulconer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
This friend, Larry Loonin, a director/playwright and one of the unsung stalwarts of the early Off-Off-Broadway movement, tells me he stage managed and carried out various other functions for the workshop, which followed the play’s world premiere in the Cape Cod town of Orleans, at the Orleans Theatre, in 1970.
|Kareem M. Lucas. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The play's formal premiere was at Off-Broadway’s Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre), starring Kevin McCarthy and Marsha Mason. It opened in October 1970 and was closed by an Off-Broadway Equity strike. It then moved to what was termed a “limited Broadway” contract at the Edison Theatre, where it ran for 143 performances.
|Kate McCluggage, Matt Harrington. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The workshop version had been on Prince Street, and Loonin clearly remembers everything about it, including that it was done as a project supported by Paul Libin and, very likely, the late Ted Mann, of the Circle in the Square for that company's possible production. Loonin's involvement includes working closely with Vonnegut to organize what was then a highly problematic script.
|Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Loonin had to leave the present production after the first act because he wasn’t feeling well, but he pointed out, both in person and, later, on the phone, a number of significant differences between the workshop script and its final version. I won’t recount the details but can’t resist mentioning one thing.
The standard version—inspired by Ulysses’ homecoming in The Odyssey, with a touch of Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden”—shows the great white hunter, Harold Ryan (O’Connell), a supermacho hero in the Hemingway vein, returning home to his wife, Penelope (Kate MacCluggage), and son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), after being lost in Africa for the past eight years.
|Craig Wesley Divino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
With Ryan considered dead, Penelope is free to marry one of the two men—Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington), a physician, and Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas), a vacuum salesman—who have been courting her in her husband’s absence.
Accompanying Ryan is his buddy, Col. Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino), described as the pilot who dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki, killing 75,000 people. The colonel, also considered MIA, so to speak, has been with Ryan all these years. However, according to Loonin, Harper, whom Loonin recalls always being referred to by Vonnegut as the “Agamemnon” character, was originally a third suitor for Penelope’s hand, not Ryan’s buddy in Africa. Perhaps some Vonnegutian sleuth will one day unearth the validity of Loonin’s claims (if it hasn’t already been done).
|Kareem M. Lucas, Kate McCluggage. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Having dissipated my critical appetite by munching so greedily on these appetizers, I’ll venture a bite of the entrée. Happy Birthday, Wanda June, written during the Vietnam War, is a satire on conventional American ideals of masculinity and heroism, which revere killing over kindness, and cruelty over compassion (the more benign values being represented by Dr. Woodly, who suffers defenestration for his pains). These notions continue to resonate in our violence-prone, AR-15 world today but are presented by both Vonnegut and this production about as subtly as a Trumpian tweet.
|Jason O'Connell, Kate McCluggage. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The play’s quirky style is very much in the absurdist mode then very much in fashion (and still running rampant, as per such recent examples as The Hollower), providing just enough realism to make its more off-the-wall, even fantastical incursions palatable. These latter include, for example, scenes during which the eponymous Wanda June (Charlotte Wise), a child who was killed by an ice cream truck, tells us how nice it is in heaven, or one in which the cast dons straw hats and sings an old vaudeville number in barbershop harmony.
|Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The weirdly angled Ryan apartment (designed by Brittany Vasta) itself, with its big game trophy heads mounted on a wall, combines realism and fantasy, including a doorbell that growls like a jungle animal rather than ringing. Jungle sounds, both those created by sound designer Mark Van Hare, and those by the actors themselves, are an integral part of the show.
|Kate McCluggage, Charlotte Wise, Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Unfortunately, and I know I’m an outlier here, this Wheelhouse Theater Company production is overacted, under-funny, and ineffectually directed. The original’s three acts are compressed into two, running a talkatively dreary two hours and 40 minutes. Director Jeff Wise isn’t able to locate the correct pace, leading to a lugubrious lack of tension. He also fails to create a world in which we can accept the plausibility of these offbeat characters and a sense of their commitment to one another.
|Charlotte Wise, Craig Wesley Divino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The play’s peculiar style requires actors who can walk the tightrope of making their characters fundamentally believable even when what they say and do is unbelievable; sometimes this demands that they convey ever-so-subtle nuances that hint at their complicity in behavior they acknowledge is silly but necessary to get a point across. What we get, instead, is a lot of mugging directed at the audience, essentially asking it to agree with whatever someone on stage is saying.
|Jason O'Connell, Kate McCluggage, Matt Harrington. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
The kid actors are fine, but, of the adults, only the tall, slender MacCluggage (who doubles as one of Ryan’s late wives, originally covered by a separate actress), finds the right tonal balance between seriousness and farce, sincerity and wit. On the other hand, O’Connell (who also plays a dead Nazi, another role originally played by a different actor) makes the gum-chewing, chauvinistic, misogynistic Ryan so cartoonishly aggressive and obnoxiously apelike (he prefers a partial crouch to standing straight), it’s incomprehensible how anyone, even in the play’s bizarro world, much less the paying audience, wouldn’t do everything in their power to climb the nearest tree.
|Finn Faulconer, Kate McCluggage, Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Yes, the audience chuckled now and then (I even felt spittle from one big laugh fall from behind on my pate), and, yes, there are those mostly positive reviews. Personally, though, I’m afraid I won’t be bringing presents to celebrate Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
Gene Frankel Theatre
24 Bond St., NYC
Through June 2