The unassuming NoHo Gene Frankel Theatre currently plays host to Wheelhouse Theater Company’s production of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1970 play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
As the audience files in, it takes in the setting: a nondescript living room adorned with the heads of dead animals, all of which hang on the walls except for the one human bust on a side table.
As the play begins, the room is filled with a cacophony of jungle sounds made by the actors in the ensuring darkness. When the lights come up, the cast as Greek chorus introduces itself as “a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing- and those who don’t.”
Soon we learn that war hero and game hunter Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell), presumed dead for eight years, has returned home, only to find his memory and value to be as stale and dusty as the taxidermic mounts of his previous kills. Ryan is accompanied by the doggedly loyal and unshakable fellow-in-limbo Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Craig Welsley Divino).
Ryan’s wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has moved on, and skirts the romantic attentions of two men, one Dr. Woodly (Matt Harrington) and vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas); Ryan’s son, Paul (Finn Faulconer) doesn’t even recognize him.
This darkly comic, often absurd and evocative play keeps the laughs coming while never letting its audience forget the bitter and ugly disparity between old-world misogynist machismo and new-age enlightened, sensitive yet sometimes impotent masculinity. One’s face almost immediately wrinkles in distaste as O’Connell’s Ryan takes the stage, his broad-stroked but disgustingly gleeful performance seeping into the groin, making him the man you love to hate.
Although this character was born in the 70’s, one cannot help but recognize in him the face of some men today that have been coaxed out of the darkness by the light of our current political climate. MacCluggage provides a witty and sharp, yet sadly wistful portrayal of the torn housewife, is extremely enjoyable to watch and is a shining standout. Divino, Harrington and Lucas provide entertaining sidekick performances; Charlotte Wise as the titular character brings a smile to one’s face, and all flourish under Jeffrey Wise’s deft direction and capable staging on Brittany Vasta’s effective set.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June plays at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, New York, NY 10012 (just east of Lafayette St.) through April 28th and definitely makes for an enjoyable evening of theater. For tickets/more information, visit here.