By Daniel Skora
They were the authors whose books came to define the ideals of a generation. Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”. Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan”. Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America”. But as widely read as these authors were on college campuses of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, there was one whose popularity eclipsed them all. Without a doubt, the space for the crown jewel belonged to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Up until 1969, Vonnegut was considered a writer of science fiction. His novels were about space travel, other worlds, and highly imaginative settings and situations on planet earth. Writing in a rather simplistic style, his novels were filled with satire, dark humor, and fantasy, making him a huge favorite of the counterculture. In 1969, he published “Slaughterhouse-Five”. The novel, which had as its seminal event the firebombing of Dresden during the waning months of World War II, became an immediate best seller. With the success of the novel, Vonnegut became a darling of the literati. Bookstores began shelving his works in the literature section. Fame also brought with it a renewed interest in his earlier works. A collection of his early short stories was published under the title “Welcome to the Monkey House”. Heavy on science fiction, fantasy, and war, the volume also contains some straightforward fiction.
Playwright Aaron Posner has adapted three of those stories for the stage. All are affectionately funny and have as their theme the topic of love. Entitled “Who Am I This Time? (and other conundrums of love)”, the show is currently being presented by the Open Book Theatre Company.
The three separate pieces are nicely held together by a narrator, Tom Newton (Joshua Brown), who acts as spokesperson for the fictitious theatre, The North Crawford Whig and Mask Club. The opening piece, “Long Walk to Forever”, is from a Vonnegut short story which appeared in the August 1960 issue of Ladies Home Journal. It concerns Catharine, a soon-to-be married young lady (Allison Megroet) who receives an unexpected visit from her childhood friend and neighbor Newt (Chris Peterson). Newt, still in uniform, has gone AWOL from the Army to express, quite out of the blue, his love for Catharine. He extends an offer of marriage to the now totally confused young lady, and love, as is usually the case, is left to sort out the particulars.
“Who Am I This Time” is the premiere piece of the three. Originally published in the December 1961 issue of “The Saturday Evening Post”, it features the extremely introverted hardware clerk Harry Nash (Richard Payton) who’s expected to be cast as the virile Stanley Kowalski/Marlon Brando character in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Harry, it seems, has managed to land every leading man role he’s auditioned for because whenever he’s handed a script, he literally becomes the part that he’s playing. For “Streetcar”, he’s cast opposite first-time actress Helene Shaw (Allison Megroet), who has been awarded the part of Stella. Helene does a lot of traveling in her job with the phone company and has never had either the time or the wherewithal for romance. But she discovers a lot of Stella in herself, and Stanley seems like her kind of man. If she can somehow convince Harry that there’s a bit of Stanley Kowalski in his character, the two just might be able to strike up a relationship. Though the outcome of this bit of Vonnegut whimsy is totally predictable, the charm, as they say, is in the getting there.
“Go Back To Your Precious Wife and Son” originally appeared in the July 1962 issue of Ladies Home Journal. It makes up the second act of the play and has Tom Newton (Joshua Brown) playing a window installer. There’s work being done at the expensive and expansive home of the fabulously famous Gloria Hilton (Sarah Hawkins Moan). The cost of the renovation is being paid for by Gloria’s fifth husband, George Murra (Sean Paraventi). But Miss Hilton takes a powder before her tub enclosure can be installed and Tom and George drink themselves into oblivion over problems with their women. Open Book Founder and Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank appears as Tom’s wife Kate.
“Who Am I This Time” is a wonderfully scripted, exceptionally acted piece of theatre. Many in the cast have several parts to play. Large chunks of Posner’s script are lifted directly from Vonnegut’s stories, recalling both the humanism and the whimsy of one of America’s most unique and important writers. The stories the play contains present a less complicated, more realistic side of an author usually given to flights of fantasy. What could be more down to earth that boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy stories?
The women seem to have the advantage here, but that’s something best left for future Vonnegut biographers to consider. The Open Book’s production is truly a delight. Never mind that the faux brick wall shakes whenever the door gets slammed. A bright, talented, and energetic cast is all this play needs to succeed. And that’s something The Open Book has without question.
Evidently, the Dell paperback of “Welcome to the Monkey House” sold very well. Vonnegut always had an absurdist view of human existence and instinctively knew that monkeys were somehow more capable of doing the right thing than humans. My copy, which has been a part of my library since it was purchased in 1972 was, even then, already into its eleventh printing. My favorite story in it has always been “Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog”, not because it was better written than any of the others, but because it left in my brain indelible images of an intelligence analyzer, a frustrated Thomas Edison, and a canine companion who let out a secret that has since remained undetected by the rest of the world. For all of the time Vonnegut put into the writing of those 25 original stories, honing his craft while supporting the writing of his novels, the book back then cost a mere 95 cents. Imagine that.
“Who Am I This Time?” is directed by Topher Payne. The show runs through March 19th and tickets are available by calling 1.734.288.7753 or going online at www.openbooktc.com. Performances of the Open Book Theatre Company take place at Penelope’s Place, an antique and resale shop located at 12219 Dix Toledo Road, Southgate MI 48195, a venue that Mr. Vonnegut would, I am sure, find as whimsical as the words that he wrote. So it goes.