“Hell is other people,” said Sartre. Especially loud, obnoxious men, Kurt Vonnegut would add. “Happy Birthday Wanda June,” the first play Vonnegut wrote, features a prime specimen.
“Wanda June” is an out of kilter retelling of the “The Odyssey.” Eight years after the disappearance of the notorious soldier and hunter Harold Ryan (Josh Platt ’04) in South America, his wife Penelope (Allison McCarty ’04) is besieged by suitors: the weakling doctor Norton Woodly (Jamie Darnton ’05) and the well-meaning but vacuous salesman Herb Shuttle (Matteo Borghese ’04).
Just a week after Penelope finally accepts Woodly’s proposal of marriage, Harold returns home with his pilot sidekick, Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Peter Cellini ’04). Ready to reclaim his possessions — his home, wife, and son, Paul (Bill Kamens) — Harold is enraged to find that over the years he’s missed out on some things, including women’s liberation.
“Wanda Jean” advertises itself on posters as a “simple-minded” play. In some ways, it is. There are typically Vonnegut moments of absurdity; the story takes detours to heaven, where we meet the titular Wanda June (Leigh Gerber), a little girl who’s been bumped off by a drunken ice cream truck driver, and hear about Jesus’ shuffleboard technique. But its overarching theme is irony-free: chest beating, warrior masculinity is crude and utterly obsolete. When Dr. Woodly confidently announces in the third act that the man of science is the hero of the future, no one contradicts him.
While there is plenty of room for criticism of machismo, the play’s central theme of its demise are embarrassingly exaggerated. It’s a claim that cannot have borne much weight in 1971 when Vonnegut wrote the play, and it certainly doesn’t now.
Harold’s lightning-fast conversion from natural born killer to girl’s best friend at the end of the play is a silly attempt to prove that men like him are “living fossils.” This abrupt character change is too bad, because as a would-be Hemingway, Platt’s performance is entertaining. His roars rattle the pipes of Trumbull’s basement, and his frenzied, cartoonish ravings (remember Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast”?) are mesmerizing. But when it comes time for Harold’s moment of self-understanding, the combination of Platt’s performance and Vonnegut’s dialogue gives Harold the depth of a wading pool, and his revelation the plausibility of an Elvis sighting.
Under the direction of Greg Yolen ’04, the show is characterized by sweeping gestures and assertive deliveries. The style works pretty well as long as the actors are careful not to shout down their own jokes, but ultimately, it limits their emotional palettes — especially because the early Vonnegut who wrote “Wanda June” seems to have had a shaky understanding of theatrical character development.
McCarty has an especially difficult task in this respect. She works hard but her performance is dragged down by her pedestrian and predictable character, Penelope. When her husband arrives home, she is too “shocked” to be anything but aggrieved at the inconvenience, even before she’s had time to notice what a jerk he is. It’s a moment of deep pathos, but somehow Vonnegut’s play seems to spend all of its time splashing around in the shallow end.
The high-point among the performances is Cellini’s portrayal of the shell-shocked Colonel Looseleaf Harper, a pilot unhinged by the guilt of bombing Nagasaki. Colonel Harper bears a distinct but superficial resemblance to Cosmo Kramer; he’s got the same slightly off-kilter coltishness. But Cellini’s Looseleaf is far more finely tuned. His verbal and physical tics, non sequiturs, and profanity that is way beyond anything NBC would ever have allowed on “Seinfeld,” are surprisingly subtle and expressive. When Looseleaf announces that he’ll probably marry “the first whore who’s nice to him,” it reads not as the cliche it could be, but as a wry admission of his own naivete.
Cellini takes advantage of the fortunate reality that Vonnegut on training wheels is still Vonnegut. There are plenty of amazing moments in the dialogue; it’s clear that the actors enjoy these little blips of audience as much as the audience. Vonnegut is at his best when he goes beyond the caveman theme, in moments more redolent of “Apocalypse Now” than Odysseus.
“You’re lucky — you came home and nobody’s here,” Looseleaf tells Harold when they first arrive. This fear of humanity, this dust that settled over the country during the 1970’s after the Nazis, Hiroshima, and Vietnam, is the element that makes this play sharp and relevant. While the acting is at moments forced, and the script contrived, such moments of frightening clarity give “Wanda June” force.