When you see a play by Kurt Vonnegut you can expect the unusual, and that is surely what you will find in his revived “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” a Wheelhouse Theater Company production. It is thoroughly zany in style and performance under the direction of Jeff Wise, but it all makes sense thematically in its inherent attack on war, man’s proclivity for killing, inflated heroics and human behavior in general.
Harold Ryan, broadly played by Jason O’Connell with a satirical Hemingway bent, has been a big game hunter, evidenced by the animal heads decorating the wall of his home, where his wife still lives. He has been missing for eight years and presumed dead. His wife, Penelope, delightfully played by Kate MacCluggage with a sassy, saucy and skeptical edge, has two suitors who assume she is a widow. Paul, the young son of Harold and Peneope, has idealized his father and longs for his return.
Eureka! Ryan, full of heroism as a war veteran, suddenly returns. His grunting speech manner makes him seem like primitive man, accenting his physical, take-no-prisoners prowess. Of course, he claims his wife and expects her to be a bedroom slave to his desire, but the rebellious Penelope is wary and not ready to conform.
The animalistic tone is stressed by the doorbell. Instead of a ring, there is a lion-like roar every time somebody comes to the abode. Ryan aggressively dispatches his wife’s suitors, one a doctor, and claims his home territory. However, Vonnegut has more up his sleeve.
As the play develops we see the process of Harold breaking down, his son becoming disillusioned, his wife having to stand her ground, and the threat of violence looming and accentuated the moment we see a rifle. All of this is presented in an atmosphere of mayhem, most of it very funny even when harrowing.
Wanda June, a youngster, pops in occasionally, although having little to do with the plot. A birthday cake is bought and it happens to have been an already prepared cake with a birthday greeting to Wanda June.
The author’s lines add up to a steady beat of stripping away pretension, undermining phony wartime heroism, and mocking machismo. The crazy situations Vonnegut constructs constitute his mechanism for saying what he wants to get across. It would be shortsighted to expect a totally logical plot.
The acting fits into the concept and mad tone, with excellent cast members including Craig Wesley Divino, Matt Harrington, Finn Faulconer, Kareem Lucas, Charlotte Wise and Brie Zimmer. At the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 24, 2018.