Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday Wanda June – A Hoot

“This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t.”

If you came of age during the late 1960s/early 1970s, the writing of Kurt Vonnegut was as much a badge of counterculture as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Whole Earth Catalog. Though he’d been published for ten years prior, the author’s satirical take on such subjects as violence/war/government i.e. morality, the battle of the sexes, and our questionable future, was popularized by a new generation. He gleefully pulled no punches.

Brittany Vasta’s immensely creative Set shows we’re not in Kansas anymore. The leafy wallpaper of the Ryan’s late 1960s living room is broken by only by taxidermied big game heads. Secondary furniture is upholstered in what’s presumed to be real leopard skin. To the rear of theater seating is a cluster of big plants (an arboretum?) to which the frustrated protagonist periodically repairs. We enter through a curtain of bamboo. The chandelier is made with antlers.

Nostalgic pop music is followed by jungle animal sounds obviously emitted  by actors, adding to a cartoon feel. Front and back doorbells on the other hand, made to order by Abercrombie & Fitch, are respectively a roaring lion and perhaps a crying monkey. (Sound Design-Mark Van Hare)

Players line up before us introducing themselves:

Penelope Ryan (Kate Maccluggage), a fourth wife, has been waiting eight years for her war-hero-big-game hunter husband, Harold (Jason O’Connell), to return from Africa. (He’s just been declared dead.) At 14 years-old, son Paul (Finn Faulconer) barely remembers his dad but disapproves of both his mom’s suitors – conservative, punch-‘m-in-the-shoulder, vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas), and sweet, peacenik neighbor Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington) – one being, in his mind, a jerk, the other possibly gay.

Kate Maccluggage and Kareem M. Lucas; Kate Maccluggage and Matt Harrington

There are also Harold’s Sancho Panza pilot pal Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) who dropped bombs on Nagasaki (about which he shrugs) and the title’s nine year-old Wanda June (Brie Zimmer).

Preface: Herb has arrived to squire Penelope to the fights, only to discover his competition is visiting. They snipe at one another. Paul begins by sulking, then storms out. It’s Harold’s birthday and no one acknowledges his dad. Herb goes after him, returning not with the boy, but rather a “Happy Birthday Wanda June” birthday cake abandoned at a local bakery. (They can scrape off the words.)

Epitomizing life’s random and perverse ways, June herself was hit by an ice cream truck that day. She makes several appearances from Heaven. (Zimmer has fine presence, but should slow down and enunciate more clearly.) Vonnegut often employed fantasy. Everyone exits the apartment.

Harold and Looseleaf enter. Here’s where things get good. Jason O’Connell, having the time of his life, gives us a macho, larger than life character who so identifies with earth’s primates, he literally grunts, sniffs, and paws at his former home, licking a mounted lion’s head sculpture, reclaiming territory. I’m surprised he didn’t pee behind the couch.

Jason O’Connell

The persona is horribly recognizable, representing a cultural element then, now insidiously pervasive. “…a toxic celebration of death, destruction, and domination cloaked in `heroism’ and American democratic values.” (Director Jeff Wise)

Shooing off his clingy companion, Harold faces the return of first his son, and then Penelope. Paul is easy to connect with using tales of derring-do. His wife is another matter. Replaying their loving, torrid past doesn’t break through wariness. Harold is completely unaware that things have changed while he was gone. Elemental action no longer attracts. Penelope’s gone to college. She lives in a different social era. She’s engaged! Her husband’s actions and reactions rule the ensuing plot.

Let us now praise Jason O’Connell whose red-blooded manifestation is a complete delight. Rife with detail, powered by bile and animalistic instinct, his Harold also shows us moments of confusion and tenderness. The thespian can sing, dance and act, doing all three with committed bravado. He moves beautifully and sounds just right. Bravo.

Kate Maccluggage and Jason O’Connell

Kate Maccluggage (Penelope) begins a spacey Donna Reed-type, then pushes back as the woman Harold’s wife has become. The actress is credibly charming and wide-eyed in the former guise and solid in the less interesting latter (through no fault of her own). I just wish we’d seen more evidence of struggle between the two.

As conceived by direction, Craig Wesley Divino’s Colonel Looseleaf Harper is a vague hanger-on, someone who might unquestioningly kill 80,000 people. There’s also the possibility this director felt the pilot’s action resulted in this, current, unhinged presence. Either way, Divino ably embraces it, while we’re unnerved. Unfortunately the actor is way to young to have been a bombardier in World War II.

Brie Zimmer and Craig Wesley Divino

Direction by Jeffrey Wise is all the play’s author could’ve best imagined. Harold’s ape-like behavior, occasionally checked by flashes of realizing environs, is exemplified by such as an aggressive furniture hump and scratching at the bedroom door. Parentheses from the past find our “hero” comically turning Herb’s vacuum into a sports car. Both pop musical numbers, performed by the cast in masks or hats (kitchen sink, anyone?) and parentheses in Heaven are seamlessly integrated.

Christopher Metzger’s Costumes are vividly period-perfect both when complete and implied only by accessories. Love Penelope’s coat, Norbert’s t-shirt, and Harold’s necklace. Wanda June’s dress is unexpectedly creative.

The play should and could easily be edited losing neither pith nor purpose. It’s impossible to say whether Vonnegut’s estate denied this request or producers felt the author’s text sacrosanct. There are passages during which you may find your fingers drumming. All in all, however, it’s terrific fun, filled with imaginative high spots and perverse observation. And it’s timely.

Photos by  Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Craig Wesley Divino, Matt Harrington, Jason O’Connell,  Finn Faulconer, Kareem M. Lucas

Wheelhouse Theater Company presents
Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday Wanda June
Directed by Jeff Wise
Through November 29, 2018
The Duke
229 West 42nd Street

About Alix Cohen (526 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.