In December 1970, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his friend, fellow novelist Jose Donoso, “…The adventure of having a play produced was harrowing…But I had to begin my theatrical career with something—and now I have in fact begun. I’ve written six novels. Now I want to write six plays.” (Kurt Vonnegut Letters, Delacorte Press, 2012 p. 165.)
Vonnegut’s adventure was the New York debut of Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the only full-length play Vonnegut published in his career. Hard to find in print, and rarely performed, Wanda June is among Vonnegut’s lesser known works, but that may change with the upcoming production by New York’s Wheelhouse Theater Company at The Duke on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Tickets are now available for this limited run beginning October 18th through November 29th.
Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington, Founding Members of the Company, shared their thoughts on the play in a recent interview with The Daily Vonnegut. In the current production Matt plays the role of Dr. Norbert Woodley while Jeff is the play’s Director.
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Q: What inspired you to stage “Happy Birthday, Wanda June?” It’s not among Vonnegut’s most well-known works?
Matt: Yeah, it’s definitely not among his known works, and the most common response I get when I talk about it with people is “Wait, Vonnegut wrote a play?” I had seen a production that some friends of mine from college did about twelve years ago now, and it stuck with me. We were trying to put out heads together and think about our next production, and it kind of floated back into my mind. I found a copy of it, and I remembered that it was compelling; I remembered that it was funny and provocative, but then when I started reading it I thought, “Oh shit, this is so much more relevant and topical and compelling for a contemporary audience than I even remembered it being.
Jeff: When you first saw it, Obama was president.
Matt: I might have been W., but it was definitely not this climate that we’re in now, and as I read the play it just felt fresher and fresher. I called Jeff and said, “You’ve got to read this…I think it’s our play.” Not to mention that as a company, all of us, the four founding members…a lot of our training was in Clown, Physical Theater. We have a kind of irreverence to the way we like to work. We like to tackle serious subject matter, but in a way that’s not self-important, and I think Vonnegut in general, and this play in particular, is a master class in that. So it felt like not only a good play to do now, but a great fit for our style, and our manner of working as a company, being able to tackle very serious issues in a kind of clownish, silly, and irreverent way.
Q: What do you think are Vonnegut’s strengths as a playwright? He’s known as a novelist, a journalist, a short story writer. At the time of Wanda June’s debut, he often stated in interviews his intention to write plays instead of novels, yet he never wrote another one, at least not one made public. What do you think of Vonnegut as a playwright?
Jeff: I think he’s a fantastic playwright. This comes through in his novels as well, but he just gets it. I find that a lot of the characters in this play are representational. I don’t think that Vonnegut was interested in writing these deeply human characters. So I think that we’re very fortunate in this production to have really skilled, and talented, and well-trained actors that bring the full spectrum of the human experience to these characters that were written more as representation of certain ideas that exist in the culture.
We actually just had a gentleman who was sitting in on some of our rehearsals and collaborating with us, and he knew Vonnegut personally. Kurt gave him a play that he had written later in life to have done at NYU. This would have been in the late Eighties, and it was terrible. It was a terrible play. Zelda (Zelda Fichandler, Former Chair of Graduate Acting at NYU) didn’t want to do it, she was running the program at the time. So we all just kind of laugh about it, but it’s a great disappointment that he didn’t write more plays of this caliber, because he’s so good.
The amount of irreverence and humor within these characters is really fun to watch. I think his protagonist in this particular play, Harold Ryan, is a gross, chauvinistic blowhard that is the epitome of toxic masculinity, who just stomps around the stage, and it would be quite uninteresting and despicable to have to sit with him for two hours, especially if you’re a woman. And yet Vonnegut found a way—and I also give credit to our lead actor, too—Vonnegut found a way to make him delightful, and fun to watch, and hilarious, while also being disgusting. And I also think… he was quoted as saying to this gentlemen who was here last week, his name is Jed Diamond. Vonnegut said to him, in the late 1980’s when they were friends, “I don’t know how I am as a playwright. I love doing it, but playwrights need to take everything out, and novelists need to put everything in.” I do think there are places where the structure of this play, dramatically, is not quite up to snuff with some of the greats, of course. But that’s okay because I don’t think he was trying to be an Ibsen or a Chekhov.
Matt: I think that’s what makes it so distinctly Vonnegut. It’s what puts his signature on it. It’s what he does with his novels. He’s not a structure guy. Part of what we love about him is that even in his novels he’ll inject his own presence into his novels. He’ll ramble and he’ll go off…he was kind of doing stuff that David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo would do later. He was kind of out front with that, and it comes out in this play, where structure is potentially more important. A novel you visit for a while and then put down. You meet it on your terms and your time frame, whereas a play is a group experience in a limited time and specific place.
So I think to have that kind of capricious, meandering shaggy dog quality can be a liability if you try to make this like Oedipus, about events leading to a climax, I think you’re going to have a hard time. I think the way to do this play is to embrace the fever dream, the absurdism of Vonnegut. That it’s a bit more of an event, almost like a Dada-ist kind of a happening. I think it comes out of that era. So we tried to embrace it. Let’s embrace the weirdness, let’s embrace the lack of structure, and I think that’s what he would have wanted.
Jeff: We said that a lot. We make these bold new proposals and do some strange things that may seem like a departure from the text but we felt that it seemed so right, channeling Vonnegut.
Jeff: I think he would love this direction.
Matt: Right. Because (in the play) you’re in this living room on the Upper East Side, and then you’re in Heaven. So you have to figure out what that means. Are you going to fly in some clouds? So he’s kind of challenging you to be a little bold and have some fun with it.
Q: You staged Wanda June earlier this year? What was the reaction?
Jeff: It was wonderful. The audience was really moved by the play, they were delighted by it. We had people coming out saying that it was a really intense experience that they would absolutely love to have again. We had people coming out saying I had no idea this was so funny. This was so strange. It was a rave across the board. I didn’t speak to anyone personally who didn’t love it. Critically it was very well received. And frankly it was shocking. This is a window into my own process but rarely have I ever directed a play and come up to Previews and Opening where I’ve thought, “Yeah, this is an A+. This show is going to knock it out. I know we’ve got a real gem on our hands.” I’m sort of a pessimist in that way. I’m a grinder, and I only see the problems with things and keep trying to solve them. My buddies get on me about that. So I probably came in thinking, “We’ve got a B, a B+ on our hands here.”
Matt: You said that.
Jeff: And then eventually I came around and thought, “This is a really solid piece of theater.” And, not that I look for this too much, but it was validated by everyone who came to see it, and the critics loved it.
Matt: It was also great to see the range of people coming out to see it who were affected by it. The older generation of Vonnegut fans, as well as younger people. We had people traveling who had heard about it…because it’s never done. There are the diehard Vonnegut fans out there. So we had people traveling from Indiana. I had a friend of mine who’s my age, a friend from high school, who’s not a theater goer. He came to see it and he said, “Oh man, I loved it so much I’m coming back.” I said, “Okay, that’s sweet. Thank you.” And then a couple of weeks later he texted me and asked, “Can I get a ticket?” and he meant it. He came back. He’s not a theater goer, so that was pretty cool. There’s always this moment when we huddle up and think, “Okay, we found the story that we think this wants to be. Let’s hope other people see that.” And I think they did on this one.
Jeff: You just reminded me, Matt, of something that was so remarkable. I have family members from different walks of life. I know people that are extreme far left and extreme far right on the political spectrum, and I thought for sure that the people who sit on the far right would come see this play as sort of , “Okay, let’s go support Jeff in his little theater endeavor,” but they came out of it and said, “I loved the play.” It was shocking to me the range of people who really enjoyed it. That was really interesting to me. We had a lot of older folks, a lot of younger folks. We couldn’t pinpoint exactly the demographics and say, “That’s our audience,” which a lot of shows can do. We’re still struggling with it. We know that there are Vonnegut fans, we know that there are young theater goers, but we see all kinds of people in between. Far right. Far left. Musical theater people come to see this and they love it. It’s interesting.
Q: It’s very much Vonnegut. He was obviously of the left in the late 60’s, but he’s also Indianapolis in everything that he says. The older he gets, the more he talks about Indianapolis, how it was so important to his core.
What was your experience with Vonnegut before you got involved with this play? Have either of you read any of the novels?
Jeff: Minimal. I had done the obligatory Vonnegut in high school and college
Q: “Harrison Bergeron?”
Jeff: No, I think it was Slaughterhouse, and I have a memory of having looked at Cat’s Cradle, but I don’t think I read it. I wasn’t a very good student. So I would not by any stretch consider myself prior to this play a Vonnegut aficionado.
Matt: Me, neither. But doing this has made me dive into more of his work. I always loved Slaughterhouse-Five, and I know that’s kind of the easy, mainstream go-to. But for good reason; I think it’s one of those books that everyone knows, and then when you read it there’s something so beautiful about this man whose taken this unbelievable trauma of being firebombed by his own country as a prisoner of war in Germany, and the only way he can reconcile that is to turn it into a science fiction novel about time travel. I think that says it all. His humor comes out, and his sadness.
Breakfast of Champions is another favorite because he’s so irreverent in it, the way he interjects himself into all the time. The way he takes on race in America in Breakfast of Champions is really powerful. I think he was very ahead of his time with that. In Slaughterhouse, there’s that beautiful moment when the Tralfamadorians are talking to Billy Pilgrim and they say, “We don’t get you guys. You see time one moment at a time. When someone is dead, you think that they are dead and they used to be alive, but in fact they’ve all been everything the whole time.” That always gets me.