Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

While the city's theater critics revive the century-old debate about the death of Broadway at the tail end of a reasonably disappointing commercial season, reassurance can be found in a visit to the tiny Gene Frankel: a musty, impossibly crowded blackbox theater that is home to a remarkable revival of Kurt Vonnegut's 1971 Happy Birthday, Wanda June. I've been hearing about this production for a while, beginning when Wendy Caster raved about it early in its run, so when the run was extended and I stumbled into press tickets, I jumped. I'm so glad I did.

Jeremy Daniel

A scathing case-study of toxic masculinity written long before "toxic masculinity" was a common phrase, Happy Birthday, Wanda June subverts Homer's Odyssey and relocates it in a strange, ridiculous dreamland that boomerangs between reality and some droll netherworld, which could just as easily be the late Vietnam era in the US as it could be purgatory. The revival remains rooted in the American past--those groovy, polyester costumes!--while simultaneously reflecting the frustrating fever-dream state of the nation right now. Therein lies both Wanda June's powerful appeal and the heartbreak of it: must a strange, dusty old piece that so efficiently bottled the darkness of the edgy, moody past have to be so damned apt again?

I suppose if it must, it might as well be really, really well done, and this production sure is. Everything about it feels spot-on in a way nothing else this season quite has, probably because it zeroes in so brilliantly on some of the republic's most tender bruises. Behold, the bemused characters, and the quizzically resigned tone they establish from the outset, when all but the titular one introduce themselves. Standing before the audience just after the lights go down on act I, Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) informs us matter-of-factly that "this is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing--and those who don't." It's quickly made clear that Penelope's husband Harold (Jason O'Connell) fits very solidly in the former category, and that Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington), the hippie doctor pursuing Penelope in Harold's absence, most certainly does not. Zipping between past and present, heaven and Earth, hawkishness and pacifism, and reality and something uncomfortably close to it, the characters reflect a nation hotly divided in the midst of a seismic social, cultural, and political shift. Sound familiar?

Harold and Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) have been off on a super-macho diamond-hunting expedition for eight years--long enough for them to have been presumed dead and for Penelope to have moved on to what seems a more fulfilling life. Recently engaged to Dr. Woodly and slowly extracting herself from another suitor, vacuum salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas), Penelope has earned a college degree and raised her son Paul (Finn Faulconer) on her own. Paul clings to the possibility that his father is still alive; Penelope is pretty cool with the idea that he isn't.

The fact that he is (probably, though sometimes in the play's more absurd passages it's implied that he might not be) sets Wanda June in motion and allows for a two-act examination of some of the ways the country was at war with itself half a century ago, and is again, now. Altered slightly from the original, with a varied ending, the revival touches on all the play's original debates about gender, war, and aggression, but now also includes a bit more than I suspect was originally intended about race and the politics of identity. Dropping in to observe the action now and then is Wanda June (Charlotte Wise), whose posthumous monologue about her death, afterlife, and place in the narrative adds weighty questions about the pointlessness of life, the promising release of death, and whether ethics and morals even matter.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that Happy Birthday, Wanda June is very frequently hilarious? It is, and it's also exceptionally acted. Jason O'Connell, who I last saw in Bedlam's Sense and Sensibility a few years ago at Judson, where he brought the house down simply by repeating the word "cottage" a few times, is in astoundingly good form here. His Harold is sort of like Burt Reynolds on steroids: all swaggering, blustering, belching id in a cheap shirt unbuttoned to the navel. As the center of the action, O'Connell is hard to look away from sometimes, but you should: the other characters are collectively less dynamic, but the actors playing them are superb. Together, they remind us that we've been through rough times before, and that provided we get through the present, we will most certainly experience them again in the future. Happy Birthday, Wanda June left me in the most curious state of simultaneous elation and melancholy, but the joy outlasted the sorrow: in dystopian times, art that zones in on our collective aches and pains can sting a little, but in the long run, it sure can work wonders in helping soothe the restless soul. Try not to miss this one.   

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