“This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t.”
One of the best shows this season, Happy Birthday, Wanda June is Off-Broadway at the Gene Frankel Theatre, produced by the Wheelhouse Theatre Company. Written by novelist and short story writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in the 70’s, this play is even more relevant today.
The entire cast delivers captivating performances, but Jason O’Connell as Harold Ryan is not to be missed. This man is so mesmerizing that you cannot take your eyes off him as he creates big-game hunter and war hero Harold Ryan. Having returned home to America after being presumed dead for eight years, things become complicated for Harold. During the war, he killed over 200 men and women, and countless more animals — for sport. He was in the Amazon Rainforest hunting for diamonds with Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino), a slow-witted aviation hero who had the unhappy task of dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Harold finds that his wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has developed relationships with men unlike himself. A vacuum cleaner salesman called Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas) and a hippie, Dr. Woodly (Matt Harrington), who later becomes Harold’s foe. Harold also finds that his son Paul (Finn Faulconer) has not grown up the way he would have liked. Ryan is the ultimate primate killing machine.
Set in 60’s America, Harold feels the country has become weak and all the heroes have been replaced by intolerable pacifists. Now Harold wants to right the wrongs.
Wanda June (Charlotte Wise) is a young girl who died before she could celebrate her birthday. She was run over by an ice cream truck, but that’s ok, she likes Heaven. Her birthday cake was purchased by one of Penelope’s lovers for a celebration of Harold’s birthday in his absence. Wanda June and several other deceased connections to Harold speak to the audience from Heaven, where Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein, and Judas Iscariot are happily playing shuffleboard. Among them is Harold’s ex-wife, Mildred – who drank herself to death because she could not stand Harold’s premature ejaculation – and Major Von Koningswald – The Beast of Yugoslavia; Harold Ryan’s most infamous victim. Vonnegut’s absurdist play on the human condition seems more real today than when it was first written.
O’Connell’s performance is over-the-top, running the gambit from whisper to roar. His accents and alpha-primate physicality make this role fully fleshed out. He is menacing and venerable making us care and fear for him all in the same breath. He is the macho male whose intelligent makes him truly frightening. Kate MacCluggage as Penelope is part June Cleaver and part Judy Benchmark. She is the perfect foil to O’Connell. Craig Wesley Divino, Finn Faulconer, Matt Harrington, Kareem Lucas and nine-year-old Charlotte Wise all fit the bill and add to this winning ensemble.
Director Jeff Wise makes intelligent choices and really allows Vonnegut’s words and ideas to shine through. Not always easy in an absurdist play. Kudos to set designer Brittany Vasta, lighting designer Drew Florida and sound design by Mark Van Hare, who really put us right into the thick of things.
Wanda June is a take on the Homer story, but how can someone reconnect if they have never really known the person to begin with? Harold is a man out of touch with an evolving world.
I so look forward to seeing more of Mr. O’Connell, Mr. Wise, and the Wheelhouse Theatre Company.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: Wheelhouse Theatre at the Gene Frankel Theatre. You can still catch this fabulous production.
Tuesday, May 29th at 7pm
Wednesday, May 30th at 7pm
Thursday, May 31st at 2pm
Thursday, May 31st at 7pm
Friday, June 1st at 7pm
Saturday, June 2nd at 2pm
Saturday, June 2nd at 7pm