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Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Apologia

Posted 10/24/18

Happy Birthday Wanda June reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

The current U.S. president applauds body-slamming reporters and calls his critics “evil.” Senate Republicans actively defended Brett Kavanaugh against sexual abuse charges, despite evidence from several women.

Toxic masculinity, an unhealthy passion for violence and contempt for women, has become mainstream. And that reality underscores the timeliness of Kurt Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, now off-Broadway at the Duke Theater.

Vonnegut smartly satirizes uber-masculinity and gun culture. Aggression is necessary to thwart an enemy, but when it becomes the definition of a “real man,” versus a means to a socially desired end, it morphs into loathsome.

As the opening line explains: “This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don't.”

Those who do are represented by the over-the-top savagery of adventurer Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell). He’s been missing for eight years and presumed dead when the play opens, leaving behind 12-year-old son Paul (Finn Faulconer) and wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage).

Set in 1960s America, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which traffics in the fantastical, is both funny and grim. It’s a meditation on masculinity and manages to send up every trope: The swaggering, growling Harold, who gleefully reports he’s killed over 200 men; his side kick Col. Looselead Harper (Craig Wesley Divino), a dolt who dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki; and Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington), a pacifist who flashes the peace sign at every turn, but deemed a “fairy” by the sneering Paul.

This Hemingway-esque machismo is set against a specific night: Harold’s birthday. Penelope is on a date, so when Harold magically reappears, it’s time to assert, in his eyes, the male prerogative. If he can’t find an enemy, he’ll invent one.

Throw in a wacky sense of heaven, rubies in the Amazon Rain Forest, an enlightened spouse and a dead girl and we get a singularly Vonnegut treatise on the absurdity of senseless violence.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June captures many of the elements Vonnegut fans love about his writing. It’s a tragedy played as a black comedy. The play mixes the mundane with a kind of magical realism, thanks to Jeff Wise’s excellent direction. The play provides various viewpoints, jumping between times and locations with almost cinematic speed.

The slaughtered animals mounted on the apartment walls in Britanny Vasta’s perfect set testify to Harold’s obsessions and fears. A first-rate O’Connell seems almost ape-like as he swings his arms and shouts his vitriol. Harold may symbolize de-evolution, but MacCluggage’s cool, restrained Penelope has evolved, as has Harrington’s Norbert. The contrast isn’t just about gender; it’s how we choose to live our lives.

A strong ensemble gives Happy Birthday, Wanda June the revival it deserves.



Interestingly, Apologia, at the Roundabout/Laura Pels Theater, is a clash between generations. But as playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell reminds us, an “apologia” is Kristin’s (Stockard Channing) defense or justification, not her apology for a fulfilled life.

A famous art historian, Kristin — an always-noteworthy Channing — fled the U.S. for Europe decades ago and is now living in the English countryside. It’s 2009, she’s just published her memoirs, and to the consternation of her sons Peter (Hugh Dancy): a successful banker she accuses of raping The Third World, and Simon (Dancy), an alcoholic who has been missing for three days.

Kristin is smart, acerbic and witty, but her familial past is catching up with her.  She calls her latest book “a memoir,” despite the fact neither son is mentioned. That omission underpins the familial angst.

Apologia posits a working mother who coped with an emotionally brutish husband, then was blamed for his decisions. While she bears responsibility for her actions, the sexist set-up is lopsided, and the concordant anger of her sons both understandable and excessive.

However, the academic and political passions, and the examination of motives and desires, is interesting, especially when Kristin explains her love for Giotto’s frescoes.

She’s at her best when skewering Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) as a "big gaping hole," and slamming Peter’s girlfriend Trudi (Talene Monahon), whose evangelical faith she dismisses as “outmoded patriarchal propaganda.” Her religious fervor, which comforts her, is rendered as pablum to Kristin.

Channing is always a draw, and there are bittersweet, multilayered stories here. With more awareness and less axes to grind, it could have been even better. —Fern Siegel