Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
The Next Arena at Atwater Village Theatre
Through November 20
Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific writer, perhaps best known for his anti-war Slaughterhouse Five and for Cat’s Cradle, a novel which plunged into a dystopian science fiction and urged defiance of religion and any other institution — science, the family, the state — promoted as an object of veneration.
Not all of Vonnegut’s work was as dark, however, and in Vonnegut USA, adapter-director Scott Rognlien has taken five of the writer’s short stories and woven them into an amusing tapestry that evokes a nostalgic (and clearly fictional) America, where life was simpler and human error could be cast as a foible rather than a deed with possibly dastardly repercussions.
The action takes place in Ilium, a make-believe place in upstate New York, sometime after the midpoint of the 20th century. The town has begun to industrialize, and the leading corporation has brought in a crack efficiency expert, Newell Cady (Jason Frost) to advise on the process. His presence coincides with a mini-industrial revolution, Ilium-style; people begin to acquire real estate, in hopes that its value will go up, and the scion (Paul Michael Nieman) of the town’s most venerated family is (temporarily) displaced from his throne of influence as residents naively make way for what they assume is the prosperity to come.
Things don’t work out quite as rosily as they expect, which is one of the central themes of the play — along with the dawning of a new feminism personified in a wife and mother named Sheila (Maia Peters), once the town belle, who is roused from her housewifery slumber to rebel against her oppressively domesticated existence.
Easily the most entertaining story is one which involves two office workers: Henry (Paul Plunkett) and his lecherous co-worker Vern (Keith Blaney), who not only pores over the pages of girlie magazines during office hours but thrusts the glossy images of naked women in other people’s faces. One day, having had enough, the married Henry conks the equally married Vern on the head with a telephone receiver — his way of standing up for old-fashioned values that include respect for women.
A reason this particular narrative works so well has to do with the well-grounded performances of Plunkett as the owlish Henry and Blaney as the wild-eyed, red-faced Vern, panting and drooling over his cherished nudes. Some of the other sequences are equally clever and insightful — this is, after all, Vonnegut, with Rognlien’s connective dialogue thrown in — but the performers are a tad overly self-conscious in their delivery, enough to make the comedy and pathos miss their mark. One additional exception is Marjorie LeWit in an effective portrayal of a woman whose marriage splinters when she writes a novel with her husband (Rob Beddall) as the prototype for its hero.
The play itself is soundly put together, with Kate Leahy’s projections helping lend the sense of an America long ago and far away.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 20. (323) 805-9355, vonnegutusa.bpt.me. Running time: one hour, 35 minutes with one intermission.