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Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Jenny Sandman
…Wars would be a lot better, I think, if guys would say to themselves sometimes…"I'm not going to that to the enemy. That's too much.---Colonel Looseleaf Harper

Whoever has the gun, you see, gets to tell everybody else exactly what to do. It's the American way. --Harold
For my money, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, second only to Einstein and Matt Groening. Slaughterhouse-5, Breakfast of Champions, and Welcome to the Monkey House are some of the most insolent, thought-provoking and deeply, strangely funny novels in the English language. His only play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, opened on Broadway in 1970 and ran for 96 performances. It's prototypical Vonnegut, but is rarely done these days, all the more reason to see 7th Sign's production of it now playing at the Access Theatre.

Written as a protest against Vietnam, Happy Birthday, Wanda June centers around the conflict in the Ryan family. Harold Ryan, a warmongering career soldier and hunter, has been lost in the Amazon for eight years. When he suddenly returns home, long after being declared legally dead, he finds his wife Penelope dating a vacuum cleaner salesman and a peacenik doctor. His twelve-year-old son Paul is deeply confused. He wants so badly to worship his father, but he swiftly realizes (along with the rest of us) that Harold is a brute. At one point, when he asks for breakfast, and Penelope tells him the cook has quit, he replies, "You're a woman, aren't you? We already got a cook!" He destroys the doctor's 200-year-old violin in a fit of pique and treats his so-called best friend with outright contempt. In the midst of this household war, we realize those most hungry for war and destruction are those most afraid of what's going on inside.

Vonnegut, who often writes about war's worst atrocities (most notably the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-5), took a somewhat underhanded approach in this play. It's a clever look at the nature of war and the trained inhumanity of soldiers, but it's much funnier than it sounds.

The sharp satire that is the author's trademark is embodied in a number of scenes that take place in heaven. Little Wanda June, a ten-year-old girl, tells us about heaven ("We play shuffleboard all the time!") while frolicking with Harold's most famous victim, Von Konigswald, the Beast of Yugoslavia. The Beast and Wanda June play together in heaven, forming the Harold Ryan Fan Club, and offer running commentary on the state of the Ryan household and on Harold's eventual meltdown.

The cast is terrific--especially James M. Saidy as Harold and Jake Thomas as Looseleaf, his erstwhile best friend. Looseleaf's aw-shucks approach to life is no match for Harold's testosterone-driven personality, but Thomas is a strong enough actor in his own right to stand up to Saidy. Jill Frutkin as Wanda June and Brian Hastert as Von Konigswald steal the show--more than comic relief, these are characters in their own right.

The ingenious set highlights the central characters' feelings of isolation. The living room is built on an island of animal bones and bedecked with animal skulls, while the dispatches from heaven take place all around the "house." Director Rachel Chavkin makes full use of both the space and the feelings of isolation, as well as the underlying absurdity of the story. At one point, The Beast of Yugoslavia and Wanda June lead the cast in a lip-synched musical number.

7th Sign's production is subtle enough not to overpower Vonnegut's humor, but strong enough to do it justice. there may not be another chance to see Happy Birthday, Wanda June for a long time. Don't miss this chance to see this funny, well cast playwhile it lasts.

Written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
With Daniel DeFerrari, Jill Frutkin, Brian Hastert, Andrew Kahrl, Liz Parker, Shannon Riley, James M. Saidy, Jake Thomas and Charlie Wilson
Lighting Design by Jay Sterkel
Costume Design by Kristen Sieh
Set Design by Jesse Hathaway Diaz
Running time: Two hours with one intermission
7th Sign, Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor. 4/01/04 through 4/18/04
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on April 4th performance
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