Among twentieth-century American storytellers, Kurt Vonnegut is an enduring favorite; his narrative voice kind but never cloying, witty but never silly, masterful but utterly unpretensious.
Vonnegut frequently wrote about being a storm window salesman and more often commented on the frailty of all humanity, including his own. Relevant and hip even into his late life, he's the writer that Jon Stewart praised in 2005 (at age 83) for not yet having lost his edge.
Maybe playwright Aaron Posner and Artists Repertory Theatre believe that Vonnegut's unwavering popularity makes an adaptation of his work a solid bet. In truth, it just raises the stakes, with the risk of misrepresenting the beloved character writer looming large. Maybe also, since one of his most prominent titles is Slaughterhouse Five and his last book before dying was A Man Without A Country, Posner feels he's been unfairly profiled as an angrily anti-war, anti-society nihilist. If so, he certainly corrects for that:
"Nearly all of Vonnegut's stories are actually love stories," he claims in the programme and has his narrator reiterate from stage. An interesting (but simplistic) theory. It would be fairer to say, We've chosen to shine a spotlight on Vonnegut's romantic, sentimental, and nostalgic sides. Please dismiss the other facets that you know, and you'll enjoy the show.
Over the course of three stories adapted from short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, (Who Am I This Time?, Long Walk To Forever, and Go Back To Your Precious Wife And Son), we witness nuptials planned and broken, courtships waged and won, comfortable companionship between a long-married pair, intrigue and role-playing between a shy new couple. All the while, we're immersed in a quaint, old-timey setting (North Crawford, Connecticut, 1962) where the townsfolk all know each other's business, and men and women roll their eyes at one another during gender-typical misunderstandings.
The good news? As a romantic triptych in its own right, the show is really enjoyable: a warm, wise, engaging series of sketches with undeniable "date night" appeal for couples in all stages of the game—be they mooning or sulking, fighting or making up.
Standout performances include Tim True's twinkly-eyed narration and adept "drunk" scene with a believably remorseful wayward husband played by Leif Norby, Sarah Lucht as a verbally-abusive yet seductive five-times-divorced Hollywood starlet, Alex Hurt's Jekyl-Hyde character shifts and Kayla Lian's responsive swoons in a winking play-within-a-play of A Streetcar Named Desire. With three stories to tell where they'd normally have just one, the cast moves briskly and there's never a dull moment. Lots of stuff happens. Flirty stuff. Funny stuff. Heartwarming.
It's a relief to note that in the Artists Rep catalog, this play is closer to off-kilter feel-good romantic comedy Jack Goes Boating than to the literature-exploiting and credulity-straining Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.
More good news? There's so much more to Vonnegut—ike the intensity that propels Slaughterhouse Five, the extremely eloquent feminist arguments waged in Miss Temptation (an Americana tale from the Monkey House collection that, surprisingly, this production skips) and the wild futuristic speculation that the author explores in the titular story from Monkey House and other works too numerous to name. If you stopped checking out Vonnegut after only watching this production, if you presumed him an Andy Griffith peer with a misty eye on the past—it would be a downright shame.
There is especially more depth to the ill-fitting title phrase, "And so it goes," than this show would lead you to believe. Used here as a variant of "Que sera sera," and even set into a similarly schmaltzy song the ensemble sings between scenes while strumming a slightly off-key guitar, the phrase in its original Slaughterhouse Five context actually indicates helpless surrender to entropy in a war-torn hellscape. (There's hardly a love theme there unless you generalize quite far.)
That said, this cast and play can show you a great time, and deliver with aplomb on their plainly stated lovey-dovey intentions. So if you commit to the premise—"grasp the thistle firmly," as they say—then you'll avoid any thorny complexities and have a lovely time.
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