Happy Birthday Wanda June


by Dany Margolis

In this update of his 1970 play, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. amiably permits his heroine to warn us, ''This is a period play.''

Well, like any fine work of art, it is and it isn't. The script has retained the color and whimsy of the era, but in this high-voltage production it delivers a shock of recognition. Under the broadly comedic but detailed direction of Robert B. Weide, the uniformly excellent cast walks a finely honed line between the sophisticated ideas and cartoonish characters in Vonnegut's rich script. A once-modern hero, the now seemingly menacing Harold Ryan (a commanding Tom Dugan) creates a cultural and familial storm when, to the astonishment of his wife and preteen son, he returns to Manhattan from his eight-year adventure diamond hunting in the jungle. Written during and metaphorically about the Vietnam War, and self-styled ''a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing,'' the script works today, particularly if we believe we've met the new enemy and this time it's not us. And within this framework, only Vonnegut can write, ''It’s a jungle out there'' and turn it into sophisticated wit.

Presiding serenely over the center of this vortex is Penelope (Linda Bates), who, like her namesake in ancient Greek legend, has at least subconsciously been awaiting the return of her warrior husband. Bates plays her proto-feminist character as regal but human, sensual but untouched. Scotty Hauser steadfastly portrays their clear-eyed son. Penelope has been dating the pacifist Dr. Woodly (Jon Lee Cope, who graciously lets his strings of love beads curve over his paunch) and the vacuum-cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (a galvanic David Alex Rosen). Harold returns with his traveling companion, the ambivalent and befuddled Col. Looseleaf Harper (a sweetly dizzying Mitchell Holden). Presenting Vonnegut's sardonic notions of the afterlife are the celestial presences of young Wanda June (Danyel Crawford demonstrating timing and presence beyond her years), the way-too-nice Nazi major (an entrancing David Holladay), and the seriously soaked Mildred (an acid-tongued Bonnie McNeil).

On Burris Jackes’ blood-red and safari-infested Manhattan living-room set that turns the shallow stage into a haven and heaven under Jay Bolton’s decisive lighting design, with striking period costumes by Patty Malkin and Peter Smith's enchanting sound -- the wartime world becomes lusciously optimistic. And what a relief it is.

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