Heroes for Zeroes

Happy Birthday Wandu June By Kurt Vonnegut Jr Directed by Jamie Orenstem At Kirkland House through March 20

KURT VONNEGUT JR should stains to writing novels, and perhaps Kirkland House should stick to producing musicals. In trying to decry the decaying world of the modern hero by updating The Odyssey. Vonnegut chokes Happy Birthday Wands June with clamsy ploys to manipulate the audience. Broad and almost cliched themes, sheltered and stereotypical characters, and dialogue which through witty is ultimately limp scar the play. Wanda June is a playwright's mangled by better left in the closet.

In the forward to the play. Vonnegut admitted that he had toyed for some time with modernizing the Odysses myth because he had found Odysseus homecoming "preposturely cruel" to Penelope. He hoped, he said, to show new insights into Penelope's character. For months Vonnegut fiddled with the play, working and reworking his dialogue and transitions But he couldn't pull off the new ending; the play leaves us lost in the middle of a labyrinth. After the drama's short run of 142 performances. Vonnegut acknowledged the cast had salvaged what they could from the play, and that Wanda June had gracefully died a well-deserved death. Too bad Jamie Orienstein, the novice director of the K. House production, didn't follow Vonnegut's example and let the play gather dust

The production suffers from an aura of incompleteness, thanks in part to flaws in the script but also to a lack of fluidity in the mechanics of the show Lacking a real stage, the play is performed starkly on the floor of K-House's junior common room. Its one homey set is adorned with serious weapons and a portrait of the "hero." Scene changes occur lethargically, as the audience must unnecessarily wait in dark silence as it watches the characters move stealthily around on stage The sound effects--like the doorbell whose ring sounds like a lion's roar--are awkward and off synch, causing the actors as well as the audience to wait for them to conclude before continuing.

The cast of Wanda June cannot be blamed for its weakness. Inspired acting saves the play from utter despair as the actors attempt to adapt the material But the acting ultimately only frustrates the audience, which wants to see more of their wares and less of their struggling to convey the play's tangled plot

Wanda June's modern-day Odysseus, mega-war hero and adventurer Harold Ryan who is played superbly by Mark Lupke returns home to New York in the early '70s after a seven-year hiatus But he finds that the world no longer glories in its romantic, violent heroes Nor is his white. Penelope (Nora Seton) a mindless devotedly passionate house wife any longer During her husband's long absence she has gone to college, presently she's being courted by two debonair suitors. Herb Shuttle (Doug Curtis) and Norbert Woodly (Andrew Atkinson)


Nora Seton captures effectively the predicament of the confused Penelope, who is caught between her roles of loyal wife and liberated woman With her ringing voice and facial expressions, she grows less awkward as the performance continues. The themes of women's rights, anti-war sentiment and the importance of the modern hero dominate the play--but no one theme is allowed to emerge

And then there is Ryan's sidekick, Loose leaf Harper (Brian Sands), who, we're told, dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Harper represents the daffy nonchalance of a mass murderer. Yet again, the plenitude of Big Themes hurts Wanda June, diverting from solid acting performances Sands, for example, portrays a truly crazy man and provides a refreshing moment of amusement with his string of "I don't know" responses. Vonnegut attempts to satirize the mass murderers of past wars by depicting them as ridiculous klutzes.

VONNEGUT GETS his cynicism about heaven into the act as well. In the most bizarre part of the play, he introduces Wanda June, a 10-year-old girl who has recently arrived in heaven and who describes heaven as a pseudo-country club which everyone's welcome to join. Even Jesus Christ plays shuffleboard there. Wanda June is only tangentially related to the plot: the birthday cake meant for her ends up in the Ryans living room. Susan Morris plays Wanda June with a lot of vitality and youthfulness, but we don't see enough of her; she spends but five minutes on stage. And we're never really sure what she's doing in the play, anyway.

Two of her companions in heaven are Siegfried von Kanigswald (Mark Kingstone), "the beast of Yugoslavia" whom Ryan killed on one of his missions; and Mildred Ryan (Dina Michels), a former wife of Ryan who has turned to alchol and cynicism. In various monologues the two characters cut apart Harold Ryan for his curelty selfishness and sexual abnormalities. Both actors do the best that could be expected with their parts especially Michels who saunters on drunkenly and then saunters off.

But instead of blending into a cohensive unit, the play becomes a potpourri of assorted themes and characters. Only occasionally do sparks ignite, but they only leaves the audience with an unquenched thirst for more. The conversation between Harold Ryan and his son Paul (Leo Luberecki) as Ryan tells of his adventures the audience of for a moment, as the pair's first-ever meeting proves moving. But the momentum doesn't last. Besides, we've seen enough housewives breaking out on their own and we've seen enough of macho men destroyed and replaced by the scientific, mechanized heroes of today.

In the end, the aimless dialogue does in Wanda June. Some lines are crisp--like when Ryan tells us that "educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch. Everything stops. "We laugh nervously as we wonder where the plot is taking us--and we discover the answer is nowhere. The world around Harold Ryan deteriorates as his wife, son, and friends leave him and he is left weaponless without his mind for his final battle with suitor Woodly. We watch Ryan struggle to salvage his own faith in himself. But, like Ryan, at the play's end, we've been brought from nowhere to nowhere.

Vonnegut's play is unfinished and unpolished, no, for the most part, is Kirkland's production of it. And with a lousy script and poor tuning it's easy to understand why the actors often seem uninspiring. Had Vonnegut polished his modern-day Odyssey better, perhaps Kirkland could have utilized the talents simmering in most of the cast. But for the time being. You'd do better to stick with Homer.