“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” at the Duke on 42nd Street

Jason O’Connell, Kate MacCluggage, and Matt Harrington in “Happy Birthday Wanda June.” Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote this piece in 1970. For better or worse, it’s highly relevant to America in 2018. It’s about men who like to kill, and about men who don’t.

Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell) is an Hemingway-esque sort of fellow, a hard-drinking, war-fighting, animal-hunting he-man. He’s been missing 8 years in the Amazon with his pilot Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and who seems rather sad about it. Harold has been declared legally dead, and this creates something of a problem when he turns up on his birthday.

His wife, Penelope (Kate MacCluggage), is dating two men, vacuum-cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem Lucas) and Dr. Norbert Woodley (Matt Harington), a man of peace and intellect. Harold and Penelope have a boy Paul entering adolescence (Finn Faulconer), who idolizes his missing father

As for Wanda June (Charlotte Wise in the performance I saw, alternating with Brie Zimmer), she’s a girl killed by an ice-cream truck driver who had been drinking. She wasn’t sad about it because she got to go to heaven, where everything is fine. Her birthday cake wasn’t picked up by her parents for obvious reasons, so when Shuttle wanted to cheer Paul up, he got the cake for the absent Harold – “just erase the name with a butter knife.”

If this sounds rather disjointed, a story that wanders down various paths before getting to some kind of point, well, that’s pure Vonnegut, and the Wheelhouse Theatre Company’s production clearly gets him. That is something of an achievement; the film version of Vonnegut’s masterwork Slaughterhouse Five was more than a muddle.

What makes this crackpot story of manhood both old and new are the players. O’Connell is a genuine madman overdosing on testosterone but never overplaying the part. Deft, subtle, detailed, exact, take your pick to describe his performance. MacCluggage is an exceptional foil to him, torn between wifely duty and the desire for a different life, one where she matters as much as her husband. Lucas and Harington support them with perfectly believable portrayals of archetypes, neither falling into a two-dimensional interpretation.

I must say that my favorite character in the play is Looseleaf Harper, not only because Vonnegut made him a remorseful nuclear bomber, but also because Divino plays for every laugh in the script but manages to come off as rather damaged goods when push comes to shove.

Then, there are the kids. Faulconer and Wise (and Zimmer I would imagine) go beyond just getting the lines right. They actually act. Wise bubbles appropriately, and despite being dead, she’s quiet lively. Faulconer passed the first test of acting – staying in character when the action is across stage. He’s Paul all the time.

Brittany Vasta’s set and Mark Van Hare’s sound effects take us to an Upper West Side apartment turned trophy room turned jungle just as the playwright’s mind would have wanted.

Vonnegut is the exact opposite of an acquired taste. Either one likes him right away or not. Jeffrey Wise has directed as fair a sampling of his work as one can get. If you don’t like the production, you probably just don’t like Vonnegut.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is playing at the Duke on 42nd Street through November 29, 2018. For more information and tickets visit the Duke’s website.

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