Happy Birthday, Wanda June and the Unhappy Return of a Lost Father
Kurt Vonnegut's 1970 comedy gets a rare off-Broadway revival.
Wanda June is a 10-year-old girl who was struck and killed by an ice cream truck. She now spends eternity in heaven partying with a Nazi officer nicknamed "the beast of Yugoslavia." That is, relatively speaking, one of the least offensive aspects of Kurt Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June, now receiving a major revival from Wheelhouse Theater Company at the Duke on 42nd Street. The hypersensitive should steer clear, but for anyone willing to look, Wheelhouse and director Jeffrey Wise have staged a marvelous abyss.
Though titular, Wanda June (Brie Zimmer) is a side character in this play, which primarily takes place in the gaudy Park Avenue living room of hunter, soldier, and all-around Übermensch Harold Ryan (Jason O'Connell). He's been missing in the Amazon for eight years, so his wife, Penelope (Kate MacCluggage), has taken a new fiancé, the pacifist violin-playing Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington). She's also dating vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas). Harold's son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), holds out hope that dad is still alive. When the all-American Ulysses finally returns, it's to a changed family unaccustomed to his gruff manners and performative virility — or what an undergraduate might call "toxic masculinity."
When Wanda June debuted off-Broadway in 1970, it was mostly dismissed as sophomoric by serious critics. But today, its crude violence rings more truthful as Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, and a host of other snarling patriarchs daily assert their caveman dominance. Voters are bewitched by these daddy figures the same way Paul is drawn to his actual dad, but Vonnegut makes a convincing case that fathers rarely swoop in to fix everything — they've much better at smashing the place up. That makes Wanda June seem awfully perceptive and spookily prophetic.
The growling, slobbering, center of the play is O'Connell, who gives one of the most uninhibited performances I've ever witnessed. His Harold enters the stage sniffing like a blood hound. He croons the ballad "You Belong to Me" to his wife, and he means it. Whether eating, killing, or rutting, he performs every action with the same wanton determination. He's Dan Bilzerian, without the rigorous beard-grooming regimen — the quintessential male id.
As his sidekick, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, Craig Wesley Divino does his best impression of a remora clinging to Harold's shark. Yet this meekly grinning beta male, we are told, actually killed 74,000 people when he dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, thousands more than Harold will ever be able to off with his bare hands. Technology hasn't provided for the democratization of violence, but the complete triumph of the nerds. In a thoughtful second-act performance, Divino brings a furtive optimism about the potential of this asymmetrical power, given the right amount of bravery in those who wield it. It's a nice touch in an otherwise bleak play.
That bleakness is given a comic veneer in the performance of MacCluggage, who responds for us all with her well-timed incredulity. As the good doctor, Harrington conveys useless outrage, while Lucas brings fawning sycophancy, both of which provide a good distillation of how people typically respond to a guy like Harold. All of the actors come together in impressive harmony for the show's flash musical numbers.
Wise directs Vonnegut's dark comedy with vaudevillian panache. The jungle-themed wallpaper of Brittany Vasta's set, on which Harold's animal head trophies hang, is just the right amount of ridiculous for a play uninterested in the confines of realism. Christopher Metzger's costumes are similarly over-the-top (I especially enjoyed Penelope's jaguar pelt coat). Drew Florida's lighting makes the dimension shifts between earth and heaven perfectly lucid, while Mark Van Hare's sound provides the cherry on top of this silly sundae (the doorbell of the Ryan home is the sound of a roaring lion).
Detractors are likely to find the language and views expressed in Happy Birthday, Wanda June to be dated and offensive. But anyone who has been paying attention for the last several years will admit that the territorial male rage that is the source of those views is very much still a part of our national character. This timely revival asks us to confront it head-on, with eyes and ears wide open.