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Theatre in Review: Operation Crucible/Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Top: Jason O'Connell, Kate MacCluggage, Matt Harrington, Photo: Jeremy Daniel. Bottom: Kieran Knowles, Christopher McCurry, Salvatore D'Aquilla, James Wallwork. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Two current, and very different, productions consider the definition of masculinity as it applies to society as a whole. A vivid slice of World War II history is served up, if not always coherently, in Kieran Knowles' new play, which is given a muscular, highly presentational production by Bryony Shanahan. (It is part of the invaluable Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59.) The core of the play, which takes up a surprisingly small amount of its running time, recounts the bombing of Sheffield, England, one night in 1940. The Blitzkrieg was in full swing and Sheffield, the home of the country's steel industry, must have been a prime Nazi target. One bomb landed on the seven-story Marple Hotel, blowing it to smithereens.

Operation Crucible is a historical fiction about that terrible event; it imagines that the only survivors were four local steelworkers who, passing by the Marple, took refuge in its basement and endured a harrowing few hours when the building collapsed, leaving them trapped under seven floors' worth of rubble. (In reality, there were seven who lived, only one from Sheffield.) Most of the play is devoted to showing, in jigsaw fashion, pieces of the daily of lives of men who toiled in the city's steelworks. Many of these are touching, funny, and/or evocative. One of them, Phil, recalls meeting his future wife at a dance in Belfast. (When he told her he didn't know how to dance, she said, "Well, you'll have to learn if you're stepping out with me.") Another, Arthur, recalls how, during the Depression, a mug of tea and half a slice of bread was considered sufficient to get through the day. He also notes that it was a good day when, passing the greengrocer, he would see a sign advertising oranges for sale.

But most of the play focuses on life during wartime. In a sequence detailing the men's home bomb shelters, a worker named Tommy says, "It wasn't much. Just a little bed at side and I put a little shelf up here just for odds and sods. Had a gas stove there and a couple of mugs. So I could have a tea." He also mentions adding a little wallpaper, just to make it homey. In wartime, they work at making casings for bombs, springs for tanks, and engine shafts for Spitfire airplanes. Even when performing these vital tasks, there's more than a little defensiveness in their (accurate) description of themselves as "priority workers" and "protected professions," not as soldiers on the front line. And the bombing of the hotel is vividly described: "One floor fell onto another, boom...boom...boom, falling like a line of dominoes, predictable, one hitting the next, and the next, gathering speed. Each smash louder, each closer."

But these moments are so many building blocks that don't add up to a play. The structuring of the episodes feels scattershot, and none of the characters emerges with a distinctive profile. And the main event, the aftermath of the bombing, doesn't prove amenable to dramatization, since all the characters can do is sit there and wait to be saved. The cast of four -- Salvatore D'Aquila, Christopher McCurry, James Wallwork, and Knowles -- is technically skilled, but Shanahan's direction is too high-pitched for theatre.

Funnily enough, Operation Crucible comes to life in the last few minutes, in an account of the bombing's aftermath that details its effect on the city and how it altered the direction of each man's life. Taken as a whole, however, this is the kind of narrative that is better suited to prose than the theatre. Everything about is well done, but it never catches fire.

At least the characters in Operation Crucible are possessed of a quiet heroism. Happy Birthday, Wanda June considers the toxic effects of masculinity as defined in American culture. This 1970 work is surely a response to the Vietnam War, at the time the most polarizing issue in American society.

The play is also a representative entry in the long line of works by eminent American fiction writers who found themselves totally at sea trying to meet the demands of the stage. We all know about Henry James' disastrous attempts at taking the West End by storm. Over the years, such eminent names as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, William Buckley, Toni Morrison, and Cynthia Ozick have all come a cropper in the theatre. (Gore Vidal is the exception that proves the rule.)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s turn at the rodeo, and, in truth, he did better than most, as the play ran Off Broadway for about six weeks in 1970 before transferring to Broadway for another three months; since then, it has largely been notable for its absence, and it is easy to see why. Vonnegut, who was out to deconstruct the myth of the Hemingway man, in this case, Harold Ryan, a great white hunter who returns after having been lost for eight years in the jungle, alone except for the company of Colonel Looseleaf Harper, his motormouthed sidekick, who is known for dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Harold, a creature of gross appetites who wanders his living room shaking his head in leonine fashion and growling -- and who thinks the ideal woman is like "a hot water bottle filled with Devonshire cream" -- is ready to resume his role as the head of the house.

That house, by the way, amusingly realized by the set designer Brittany Vasta, is its own Museum of Natural History, the walls adorned with animal heads, the furniture covered in leopard prints, and the wallpaper done in a jungle theme; the sound designer, Mark Van Hare pitches in with doorbells that sound like lions and hyenas. But Penelope, Harold's wife, who occupies the East Side townhouse she once shared with him, has moved on, tending their twelve-year-old son, Paul, and keeping two suitors on the string: the kind and gentle Dr. Norbert Woodly and Herb Shuttle, a dyed-in-the-wool Harold Ryan fan.

It's a classic setup, possibly taken from Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden, which, in turn, inspired the film comedies My Favorite Wife and Move Over, Darling. The result is a flippant, semi-absurdist satire laid onto a typical sex-comedy situation. Vonnegut was out to carve up what he saw as the manly ideal that was ruining American society. A noble cause, indeed, but his inexperience shows at every turn. The play is top-heavy with unamusing exposition; the characters keep coming and going to no purpose, except to engage in lengthy, detail-filled conversations with each other. When a climactic scene is finally arranged, it is as flat as everything else that has come before it.

These conclusions are easy to reach because Jeff Wise's staging seems to be right in the spirit of Vonnegut's intentions, with a skillful cast onboard. Jason O'Connell creates a Harold who is a kind of borderline man-animal, constantly exerting his presence and snarkily baiting anyone he doesn't like -- which is to say the rest of the company. He deftly transitions into the persona of a Nazi officer in several of the play's irrelevant trips to Heaven, where everyone plays shuffleboard for eternity. (Among the other characters we meet there are Mildred, one of Harold's previous wives, and the title character, a ten-year-old girl whose birthday cake was never picked up, due to her unexpected death.) Kate MacCluggage is equally solid as the airheaded Penelope and the bitter, wisecracking Mildred. Young Finn Faulconer is fine as Paul, who doesn't really know what to make of his new father. Craig Wesley Divino does all that can be done with Looseleaf's run-on speeches.

I assume that the production, by the Wheelhouse Theater Company at the Gene Frankel Theatre, is intended as a comment on America's eternal love affair with guns. (Quite apart from everything else, a rifle features prominently in the climax.) But much of Happy Birthday, Wanda June dates badly. In a play supposedly proffering enlightened notions about sex roles, Penelope is passive, a near-blank who exists largely as a prize to be handed out to one of the men. And when Norbert gives Paul a birthday present, it is a copy of the poster saying, "War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things," a cultural touchstone in 1970 but one that few in the audience will remember. If such things aren't enough to sink the play, its meandering structure is certainly the final straw; among other things, the Heaven scenes could be removed entirely without materially affecting the play's intent.

I'm glad to have seen Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a work I was always curious about, and, if nothing else, this production suggests why it had such a short run, even with a cast that included Kevin McCarthy, Marsha Mason, and William Hickey. If it didn't seem like much in 1970, it certainly hasn't improved with age -- David Barbour


(16 May 2018)

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