Before he was a literary icon, before he had an Indianapolis library dedicated to his work, before he even had his first novel published, Kurt Vonnegut was a struggling writer trying to find his voice through the sale of short stories to popular magazines.
(Yes, mainstream magazines back in the day used to publish short fiction—ask your grandparents.)
After a few of his novels sold, many of these stories were pulled together into a collection called, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
“The contents of this book,” wrote Vonnegut, “are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels. Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise.” He went so far as to self-deprecatingly call one of them a “sickeningly slick love story from The Ladies Home Journal.”
That “sickeningly slick” tale and two others have been skillfully fused together into “Who Am I This Time? (and Other Conundrums of Love),” a folksy, fun play being staged at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 23. The result may be a bit twee for those who prefer a more cynical Vonnegut—including a trio behind me who bolted at intermission mumbling something about “treacle” and “Prairie Home Companion”—but I found it charming, smart and only occasionally erring on the side of cutesy.
The stories incorporated are “Long Walk to Forever,” in which an AWOL soldier woos an about-to-be-bride; “Who am I This Time?,” concerning a small-town community theater’s leading actor, who takes on the personality of whomever he’s playing on stage; and “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son,” about a volatile actress and her second-thought-ridden fifth husband.
Playwright Aaron Posner seamlessly imposed connecting tissue into the otherwise unconnected work, making the soldier of the first grow into the amateur director of the second and the bathroom-fixture installer pulled into the domestic drama in the third, adding musical interludes and a clear coating of whimsy.
Robert Neal is at his most ordinary-guy charming as Tom; Constance Macy has less to do but does it well as his wife, Kate. And Matthew Brumlow makes the most of the showpiece part of the nebbish-turned-Brando in the “Who am I This Time?” segment. Despite a pacing lag during the play-within-a-play, the first-act-closing piece proved so strong on opening night that it took a while for Act II to build up the momentum again. A well-played drunk scene between Neal and Ryan Artzberger went a long way toward bringing the show back up to speed.
Director Janet Allen wisely set the casual tone early, with her company of actors playing songs and kibitzing with the crowd as they take their seats. The comfortable atmosphere paid off later, with actors wisely selecting moments to acknowledge the audience throughoutthe play. I’m not convinced that the primarily metal-framed glass scenic design by Russell Metheny (which seemed to draw its inspiration from the Act II bathroom setting) served the work, especially in the first act. And uprooting the location from Cape Cod to Indiana felt a tad condescending.
But those are minor complaints for a big-hearted, crowd-pleasing show and one that just might lead some audience members to dust off their Vonnegut paperbacks and dive in again. After all, there are many more tales in “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
And Vonnegut at his sickeningly slickest is still better than most writers on their best days.•
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