A review by Joshua Kahn.
Rob Smith as Lou Sterling, Carryl Lynn as Nancy Daily, and Matt Taylor as Bud Carmody. Photo credits: Maia Peters
Kurt Vonnegut is a difficult author to adapt to the stage. Much of the success of his writing relies upon the prose itself, its bitterly cynical point of view that coaxes comedy out of existential despair. Adaptor/Director Scott Rognlien is clearly a Vonnegut devotee, and that admiration is apparent in every scene of The Next Arena's Vonnegut, USA, having its world premiere at the Atwater Village Theatre.
(Left: Jason Frost as Newell Cady and Carryl Lynn as Mrs. Dickie)
Vonnegut, USA presents five lesser-known Vonnegut short stories as one continuous tale, pulling back the curtain on the private lives of the small-town folk of Spruce Falls and the wealthy businessmen of the Federal Forge and Foundry (FFF). Rognlien's greatest success is his ability to weave the stories into a larger, cohesive narrative, keeping in line with how Vonnegut himself created an extended universe throughout his novels. The overall arc tells the story of young FFF executive Newell Cady who moves to Spruce Falls, revitalizing the local economy and unearthing the age-old conflicts between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy.
The stories Rognlien has chosen are a atypical of Vonnegut's most popular works. These days, Vonnegut is probably best well-known for his blending of bitter cynical anthropology and science-fiction in works like Slaughterhouse-Five and
Cat's Cradle. Here, the tales are all rooted in reality: prankish co-workers, crumbling marriages, small-town rivalries... While they're recognizably Vonnegut-esque, it's a bold choice to pick these straightforward stories for dramatic adaptation. Perhaps not a great introduction to Vonnegut for the uninitiated, but intriguing for those who are already fans.
(Right: Marjorie LeWit as Elsie Strang Morgan)
Rognlien's a smart adaptor and knows that something vital is lost when moving from prose to drama. He accounts for this by writing many asides for his characters. They very frequently break the fourth wall, telling us directly what's about to happen, what's just happened, what's currently happening. While many of these asides do a good job of capturing that dry, removed Vonnegut tone, even more of them provide unnecessary information that greatly slows the pace on a moment-to-moment basis. Why do we need to be told someone's about to speak when we can just hear them speak? And so on. The very structure of the play itself doesn't help with pacing either. We weave in and out of scenes and stories, many times without a strong, definitive ending. The main arc (Newell Cady's life in Spruce Falls) similarly ends without much of an impact, so the play as a whole falls into a repetitive rhythm of slowly building up to a semi-payoff.
(Left: Paul Plunkett as Henry George Lovell, Jr. and Eric Normington as Kennard Pelk)
Fortunately, these periods of buildup are entertaining: due to the reliance on asides and direct addresses, much of the play is narrated. Vonnegut's characters are often larger-than-life, exaggerated caricatures of some aspect of American society, and the actors saddled with these narrator roles find the nuance in the writing. Eric Normington as FFF police officer Kennard Pelk narrates much of the first act with such a charming small-town benignity that it's hard not to like him. Much of Act Two is narrated by JR Reed as storm window salesman Dave Mansfield, with an appealing, smooth-talking charm. Much of the supporting cast tends to either go a bit far into caricature, losing some of the humanity, or go for a more naturalistic approach, getting swallowed up by the showier performances. A notable exception is Keith Blaney, doing double duty as a monstrous, perverted FFF employee and as a beleaguered small-town husband. Blaney has the strongest grasp on the material, showing how even Vonnegut's most offbeat creations are recognizably human.
(Right: Keith Blaney as Herb White)
Vonnegut, USA is a noble, worthwhile effort for sure, but there's some element missing. Vonnegut's world is vivid and the colorless, sparse set design saps up a lot of the actors' stage presence and energy.
This is further hampered by some stiff blocking and clunky scene transitions that somehow make the stage seem cluttered and barren all at the same time. That's not to say Rognlien's not a talented director. There are some brilliantly clever moments of true invention scattered throughout that make fun, surprising use of the set and projections, especially a few video interludes that playfully mimic the news reels, educational videos, and commercials from the 1960s and 70s. Vonnegut constantly shocked his readers by bucking the norms of literature, so it tracks that a theatrical adaptation of his works should do the same. I just wish there were more moments that exemplified this.
(Left: Paul Michael Nieman as Upton Beaton)
Runs: October 14 - November 20
Plays: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039
Ticket Prices: Opening Night Gala October 14 at 8 pm - $30 Fridays and Saturdays: $20 Sunday Matinees: Pay-What-You Can Appropriate for: Ages 13 and up
Buy Tickets: vonnegutusa.bpt.me