“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” surreal Vonnegut satire on war and macho man

By Lucy Komisar

Kurt Vonnegut‘s 1970 surreal satire dissects the extreme alpha male, a 40ish guy who sometime, in his breathing, his grunts and body movement, seems to turn into an ape. It connects machismo to violence to war. It gets a very good production by the Wheelhouse Theater Company, directed by Jeff Wise.

Jason O’Connell as Harold Ryan, photo Jeremy Daniel.

Harold Ryan (the excellent Jason O‘Connell), a war veteran and big game hunter, has disappeared in a jungle trek, and his wife Penelope (a fine Kate MacCluggage), a former fast food carhop, has taken up with Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington) a mild-manned doctor who calls himself a healer. She also occasionally goes out with a vacuum cleaner salesman. Ordinary folks.

When Odysseus, I mean Harold, after eight years returns from his private Odyssey, he finds that his wife is not so amenable to his ways. His ideas about sex seem more about power than love. He declares that educating women is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch. Everything stops.”

His son Paul (a good Finn Faulconer) at first likes the idea of getting a dad back, but is also put off by dad‘s extreme behavior.

Kate MacCluggage as Penelope & Jason O’Connell as Harold Ryan, photo Jeremy Daniel.

The story is about power, Harold‘s desire to exert dominance over everyone in his path, and also about violence.

His buddy Col Looseleaf Harper (well portrayed by Craig Wesley Divino), who accompanied him to the jungle, had the distinction of dropping the bomb on Nakasaki that killed 74 million people. He wonders if maybe he shouldn‘t have done it.

The walls of the apartment are decorated with animal heads. Harold sensually licks a sculpted lion‘s head. The doorbell ring is a lion‘s roar. Harold gives Paul a rifle as a present. Harold gets off on killing.

O‘Connell, smirking and scratching, is perfect as the obnoxious Harold and in the accents of various promulgators of European horror.

Director Wise knows how to use a light touch so events exist on the cusp of believability.

Vonnegut was prescient in some respects. He talks about men refusing to fight wars and says America‘s days of greatness are over.

Charlotte Wise as Wanda June & Craig Wesley Devino as Col Looseleaf Harper, photo Jeremy Daniel.

The title is the lettering on a cake that was bought cheap after little Wanda was hit by an ice cream truck before it could be picked up.

Life here is as cheap as the cake. It’s all about killing. Though big-talking Harold is so incompetent, he can‘t even pull off a last Hemingway gesture at the end.

This was Vonnegut‘s first play. Asked how he got the idea, he wrote, “I once led a Great Books Study Group on Cape Cod, and we read and discussed Homer‘s Odyssey. I found the behavior of Odysseus after arriving home unexpectedly from the Trojan War hilariously pig-headed and somehow Hemmingway-esque. And then I remembered the blowhard father of a girl I dated in high school, who had heard of huge rubies to be found in the Amazon Rain Forest, and wanted to quit his job and go look for them.”

Talented actors and good direction make this a worthy production of Vonnegut’s iconic play.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June.” Written by Kurt Vonnegut, directed by Jeff Wise. Wheelhouse Theater Company at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York City. (646) 223-3010. Opened Oct 18, 2018, closes Nov 29, 2018. 11/7/18.

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