The two postwar American novelists laureate perhaps most associated with satirically probing the military-industrial banalities of Cold War conformity and midcentury alienation are Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. But if Pynchon is the rhizomatic chronicler of what lit professors once called “the postmodern condition,” Vonnegut, as adaptor-director Scott Rognlien compellingly demonstrates in Vonnegut USA, is its blackly comedic caricaturist.
Weaving together five of Vonnegut's early, lesser-known short stories, mostly from the collections Bagombo Snuff Box and While Mortals Sleep, Vonnegut USA vividly brings to life the mythic 1950s world of Ilium, New York, and its surroundings, which fans will readily recognize as the recurring fictional setting for the author’s more renowned novels.
What ultimately links the evening's several dozen characters, however, are their ties to the town’s major employer, the sprawling, 537-building “city of industry” called the Federal Forge & Foundry (neatly suggested by Brittany Blouch’s efficient set, and in lighting designer Kate Leahy’s metonymic projections), whose banal array of far-flung products becomes a kind of ironic running joke, mainly in a winking series of Rognlien’s faux retro-industrial films that sing the Fordist praises of the sinister conglomerate and “American know-how.”
Introduced by FFF’s chief of security, Kennard Pelk (Eric Normington), who serves as the play’s Our Town–esque narrator, the evening starts with the off-kilter parable “Bomar,” about an elaborate practical joke gone bad. Office cutups (Rob Smith and Matt Taylor) play on the gullibility of the office’s schoolmarmish secretary of FFF’s records section, Miss Daily (the fine Carryl Lynn), by recruiting plant janitor Harry Barker (Rob Beddall) to impersonate a wealthy company shareholder. Though their intention is to substantiate their increasingly implausible fabrications about the tycoon, the gag quickly spins out of control when Miss Daily calls their bluff.
“Poor Little Rich Town” lampoons the aspirations of the picturesque but down-on-its-luck village Spruce Falls when its leading citizens (Normington, Paul Michael Nieman, Darren Mangler) pin their hopes for economic renewal on FFF’s mammoth new headquarters in nearby Ilium by pandering to the ergonomic compulsions of the company’s maniacal efficiency expert, Newell Cady (Jason Frost).
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“Hundred-Dollar Kisses” is the evening’s most polished and hilariously realized segment. It opens with Pelk interrogating mild-mannered records manager Henry George Lovell Jr. (Paul Plunkett), who haltingly describes his apparently unprovoked assault against Vern Petrie (the amazing Keith Blaney), a corpulent and louche FFF executive with an unhealthy fixation on men’s magazines and the centerfold model Patty Lee Minot (Marjorie LeWit).
Vonnegut USA’s most lyrical passage, as well as its lengthiest narrative, is adapted from “Lovers Anonymous.” Featuring FFF traveling salesman Dave Mansfield (the excellent JR Reed), who appears in several segments hawking the company’s “Rolls-Royce of storm windows,” the story recounts the impact made by a feminist tome called Woman, the Wasted Sex on the marriage of Spruce Falls’ former high school siren Sheila Hinckley (Maia Peters) to schlumpy bookkeeper Herb White (Blaney).
Vonnegut the short-story writer emerges as a wryly engaging, if sometimes exasperatingly bathetic fabulist with penchants for the twist ending and the too neatly tied-off platitude. (“Everybody pays attention to pictures of things. Nobody pays attention to things themselves,” Henry moans at the end of “Hundred-Dollar Kisses.”) What’s missing are the sobering ironies of technological atrocity (the bombing of Dresden; the nuclear arms race) that underpinned novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle with the resonant ballast of apocalyptic horror. But Rognlien proves himself a crack storyteller with an eye for emblematic detail (abetted by Kimberly Freed’s witty and precise period costumes). And if the stories never quite cohere as the unified vision of a “Vonnegut universe” that the director intends, a deliciously able ensemble of character actors makes Vonnegut USA an irresistibly funny reintroduction to an unjustly neglected master.
The Next Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater Village; through Nov. 20. (323) 805-9355, vonnegutusa.bpt.me.