When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, he left behind eleven versions of a proposed play, “Make Up Your Mind” as he couldn’t decide (insert ironic comments here) which one of them he preferred. Playwright Nicky Silver, when asked to come up with a producible version, went right to the source and “assembled” material from Vonnegut’s work. Thus all the words in this work are Vonnegut’s, including some speeches given by actor Richard Snee, portraying Vonnegut, from his 1981 collection “Palm Sunday”. A fast-paced ninety minute comedy set in 1986 in New York, it concerns a former telephone company employee named Roland Stackhouse (Barlow Adamson) who has developed an unusual technique to cure people of indecisiveness, in the role of a “decisiologist”. In its “final” form, SpeakEasy Stage Company is currently presenting the work as a world premiere, something the company states is part of an increased involvement in the discovery and nurturing of new works, a truly noble idea that should prove exciting in future seasons. As described by Paul Daigneault, Producing Artistic Director of the company, this play is a human tale of fathers and sons and others looking, rather misguidedly, for human connection. It’s directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, who had previously directed Vonnegut’s play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” and loved its absurdist quality.
This play takes place in 1986 in Stackhouse’s office and a bench in Central Park, over the course of some ninety intermissionless minutes. The four member cast also includes a billionaire’s wife, Karen Finch (Tracy Goss), a verbose compulsive smoker, Fletcher (also played by Snee), and Roland’s very disapproving father, George (Ross Bickell). Roland’s unseen associate Raymond beats the hell out of clients who regress “because violence is the only thing that works”. Baker has been quoted about the work: “Is this a farce? Is this a piece of absurdist theater? Is this a drama?…all of it”. What it’s not is a coherent play. There is almost complete lack of structure, thus jokes fail with no set-up or payoff, leading some of the actors to shameless mugging. The result is a string of mostly unrelated one-liners delivered out of any context by mostly unrelated characters. What little context there is survives from Vonnegut’s fiction, his profound anger and pessimism, his love of irony, the darker the better; what also survives, however, is what some criticized as incoherence and empty aphorisms.
Irony of ironies, the hit of this production is not written but visual, namely the Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, a witty and clever homage to Vonnegut, who was a well-known graphic artist whose felt-tip illustrations appeared in his written works. (As the old saying goes, though, about a stunningly lovely restaurant with average food, you can’t eat the décor). Even the set changes are accomplished by stagehands dressed in white to match the set. The other technical elements are what one expects of this company, all top notch, from Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, to Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Projection Design by Seaghan McKay, and Sound Design by David Remedios (though it includes an overly long and painfully loud pre-show mix of music).
Vonnegut’s literary works are classics of American counterculture, but what works on the page doesn’t always work on the stage. Whether you should you see this play may depend on how much of a Vonnegut-phile you are. You decide. And so it goes.