Sunday, February 2, 2014

In stage adaptation presented by IRT, Kurt Vonnegut meditates on love, its risks and sometimes compromised rewards

Kurt Vonnegut: A friendly, sidelong glance at love.
There's no place like home, fortunately. As an installer of triple-insulated windows and bathroom fixtures (including fancy tub enclosures), John keeps his customers' home life physically secure. But he has no more clues as to securing home psychologically than most of us.

So it goes, as the formulaic Kurt Vonnegut verbal shrug has it.

John and other inhabitants of North Crawford, Indiana, in the early 1960s don't have many bulwarks against being inundated with doubts, apart from knowing each other well in the kind of small town of which Hoosier legends are made.  That, and the outlet  of the Mask and Wig Club, a community theater company, at whose headquarters "Who Am I This Time? (and Other Conundrums of Love)" takes place.

Aaron Posner's adaptation of three Vonnegut short stories sits comfortably on the cast of Indiana Repertory Theatre's production, which opened this weekend under the direction of Janet Allen. Robert Neal plays John with a folksy but never cloying offhand wisdom and resilience.

Long ago as an AWOL soldier (played by Zach Kenney), John did something bold to win his bride, an episode fictionalized and distanced in the first playlet, "Long Walk to Forever," but has settled into a life that knows the best way forward is to make do as well as possible with the resources you have at hand.

Kate uses air quotes to explain theatrical passion to Helene.
When (in the title playlet), he finds himself suddenly required to direct  "A Streetcar Named Desire, " it's clear his Stanley Kowalski will be the painfully shy hardware clerk Harry Nash (Matthew Brumlow),  a Mask and Wig Club mainstay who fully inhabits every character he attempts from the start. But the need for an alluring Stella puts John up against the town's shortage of attractive young women. Resourcefulness wins out, however, as he talks a newcomer — repressed phone-company functionary Helene (Liz Kimball) — into auditioning.

Harry's overeager co-worker Verne (Ryan Artzberger) grudgingly takes on supporting roles, John's wife Kate (Constance Macy) is dependably adequate to the fluttery flamboyance of Blanche DuBois, and the show is off to the races. The most hilarious of the subtitle's "conundrums of love" inhabit this centerpiece as the magic of amateur theater peels away the stars' inhibitions. The centrifugal force of their passion amusingly threatens the show's cohesiveness; the pacing and energy focused on that process was one of the IRT production's chief delights Saturday evening. It was an ensemble tour-de-force.

If Harry and Helene never run out of scripts whose love interest they can embody, their post-"Streetcar" marriage will be a happy one. As we see them mimicking Algernon Moncrief  and Cecily Cardew in the final scene, however, we can't be too sure, though of course the importance of being earnest is duly underlined.

Vonnegut's manner of characterization privileges situation over personality, which makes him an incorrigible farceur even when the flavor of his stories is unnerving or sentimental. So in "Who Am I This Time?" he plays with the transformative artificiality of the stage. If two people (almost caricatures) with mental blocks against romance can be galvanized with the kind of charge Tennessee Williams gave to the Kowalskis, anything is possible.

The Vonnegut message: We muddle through in matters of love; we make do with what we have. The songs that dot the production emphasize the provisional, hopeful nature of love. We may not have much to work with at times, but we keep on trying, runs the theme.
Unhappily married to a star, writer bonds over booze with John.

So much of Kurt Vonnegut is grounded in Mark Twain, I couldn't help thinking of a macabre minor tale by the 19th-century master. Called "Amelia's Unfortunate Young Man," the sketch purports to be the author's response to the plight of a young woman whose betrothed has endured a succession of maiming and disfiguring accidents and illnesses. She has written Twain for advice.

Should she marry him after all this horrendous diminishment of the man she fell in love with? "It is a delicate question," the author deadpans. "It is one which involves the lifelong happiness of a woman and that of nearly two-thirds of a man, and I feel it would be assuming too great a responsibility to do more than make a mere suggestion in the case."

A Vonnegut screenprint: "There Is a Ceiling on Human Thoughts"
He makes the suggestion anyway, and Twain's mock-delicacy imbues the comic spirit he passed on nearly intact to Vonnegut, who added whimsy, not always to the benefit of his art.  (Russell Metheny's set design, by the way, is soaring, abstract, practical, Vonnegut-inspired but nearly free of whimsy. Bravo!)

In the finale, "Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son," a more obvious mismatch than Amelia's exposes the shallowness of a Hollywood glamour queen (Carmen Roman) who has decided to move with her writer's-block-afflicted fifth husband (Artzberger) away from Tinseltown's phonies to North Crawford.

The breakup of the writer-diva marriage bursts unavoidably around John, who's installing a customized bathtub enclosure in the discordant home. Here is where the acting and direction triumph over the material, because the drunken bonding between the writer and John rests on the brilliance Artzberger and Neal bring to it. The rapprochement between the writer and his bitter cadet son (we can infer he's at Culver Military Academy) is something the audience dearly desires. But it feels as weak dramatically as the eventually resolved spat that the binge generates in John and Kate's marriage.

Still, this kind of thing is very much what makes Vonnegut popular. People like his whimsical way of fleshing out this entertaining reassurance: You take what you get and you're nudged to apply your best efforts toward making it better. If it turns out not so well, there's always an amused, not too shabby way of looking at it that's open to you.

As Twain advises Amelia about her multiply damaged fiance: "Give him ninety days, without grace, and if he does not break his neck in the meantime, marry him and take the chances." In other words, it may be too much to expect that two whole people come into any enduring, close relationship.

That's Vonnegut on love all over. It's a good enough stance for the IRT to feel amply comfortable about in this buoyant show.