“Irreverent adaptations.” That’s what playwright Aaron Posner has focused on lately. Creative retoolings of great works that perhaps he wouldn’t be so thrilled to show their original authors. Maybe they would like them. Maybe they wouldn’t. But most certainly these shows would feel distinctly peculiar compared to their original form.
Two years ago Houston had the lucky chance to catch one of these efforts from Posner. Not just any effort, mind you, but the work that’s afforded Posner the most acclaim. Stupid Fucking Bird, a riotous riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, came to the city as a critically admired award-winner and left with another accolade under its belt. We at the Houston Press were so enamored with the show and Stages Reparatory Theatre’s production that we honored it with our 2015 Best Play award.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Stages has brought Posner back on the boards. This time however, irreverence isn’t on the menu. Prior to his creative re-imagining of classic works, Posner dabbled in far more reverent adaptations and it’s this period that we are now asked to dip our toes in.
Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love), first produced in 2012, is all about the facets of Eros, from the first blush of love to lusty connection to the peril of its demise. So whose work then is Posner bringing us? Is it Jane Austen with her socially astute love stories? Is it Charlotte Brontë with her Gothic melodramatic romance fictions? What if we told you it was Kurt Vonnegut?
Huh? Vonnegut? The darkly satirical author best known for the anti-Vietnam War novel Slaughterhouse-Five? Yup, that Vonnegut. Seems that as with Posner’s reverent versus irreverent writing, Vonnegut also played in a different arena in some of his early works. Specifically, short stories not mired in his trademark sarcasm and acrimony, but rather pieces that consider more emotional and heartfelt themes.
Who Am I This Time, then, is the melding of three of these types of Vonnegut short stories, all from his Welcome to the Monkey House collection. Posner has taken A Long Walk to Forever, Who Am I This Time? and Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son and created a three-part play that weaves together the stories as a connected narrative.
In looking over my notes as I started writing this review, this is what I saw: Story No. 1 – cute enough. Story No. 2 – cute enough and quite funny in parts. Story No. 3 – Oh dear. How unfortunate.
Of course, I shall elaborate.
The play opens at The North Crawford Mask & Wig Club, a small community theater in Connecticut. The bi-level wooden stage, posters of past productions, a ragtag of various community theater types and scattered props/tossed costumes tell us that this isn’t exactly the big time. Tom (an overly affable Phillip Lehl), our narrator for the evening in a distinctly Our Town type of treatment throughout, addresses the audience directly. “Our subject tonight is love,” he tells us, along with a smattering of mildly amusing jokes poking fun at the experience of live theater and the folks who work in it. Once the warm-up act is done, we get onto the first play at hand – presented as both a work performed by the community troupe and, later we find out, a memory play.
The cute enough story No. 1 (A Long Walk to Forever) is about an AWOL solider stealing away to his hometown to tell his engaged-to-another-man childhood friend that he loves her. His timing, on the eve of her wedding, leaves much to be desired. It’s a cute story made sweet by lovely performances from Emily Neves and Blake Jackson, who help us forget that we know exactly how things are going to turn out. Lehl, here acting as our narrator, filling in plot points, providing sound effects, offering up stage direction and even giving a hearty physical push to get the pair to kiss, brings much-needed wit to this otherwise semi-saccharine narrative.
“Chase after the things you love,” the moral tells us. “And so it goes,” says Tom (a nod to Vonnegut’s repeating refrain from Slaughterhouse-Five). Stepping out of the narrator’s shoes and back into playing himself, Tom then segues the action into the second story.
The cute enough and quite funny in parts story No. 2 (Who Am I This Time) finds us back in the community theater. Tom, a window installer by day, has to fill in for the usual director, Doris (a hilariously over the top artistically whacky Deborah Hope) in their upcoming production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Here we get the full use of the talented cast as each cast member plays an amateur actor trying out for and performing in the play. But it’s two of the characters in particular that are the focus of the story, each a social savant who comes out of their shell by virtue of the production. There’s painfully shy Harry who can only seem to interact with others when he masterfully takes on a leading role at the small theater. Here he’s Stan Kowalski, played with great comic timing by Jason Dugga, making us laugh at his transformation from spectacle wearing wallflower to wife-beater wearing tough guy. Awkward Helene has only been in love with the characters portrayed in the movies and is struggling to get the part of Stella right. But one look at Harry’s Stan and something inside her unlocks. Played by Emily Neves we can’t help but chortle as she lusts for Harry/Stan with every inch of her newly on-fire body.
Quick fire run throughs of all three eves of the company’s production – each one funnier than the next -provides an easy zany tone to the story. How the two misfits/turned temporary extroverts find a way to keep the fires burning once the show has ended is amusingly quirky to say the least.
‘Don’t judge what makes other couples happy or why they work together’, is what we learn. Or as Tom tells us, “You never know what a couple’s cat sees.”
The oh dear, how unfortunate story No. 3 (Go Back to your Precious Wife and Son) has none of the standard sweetness of the first tale, nor does it have the offbeat humor of the second. Instead, it’s a cringe-worthy outdated piece that lands like a misogynist thud.
Screenwriter George (a bewigged Josh Morrison) has brought his movie star wife (Deborah Hope) to live in Tom’s small town to try to get away from the fakery of Hollywood. He’s also brought her there to get away from the gossip about his being her fourth husband and a man who left his wife and son for the starlet. When Tom is asked to install a custom bathroom fitting for the pair, he overhears them fighting and declaring divorce.
George is “devastated” not so much at losing his starlet, but in a “woe is me; my teenage son whom I’ve had nothing to do with for years won’t talk to me” kind of way. George and Tom get drunk together and engage in “marriage is hard; women will make you crazy” talk. But none of this compares to when George summons his son John (Blake Jackson) to try to make amends, using rationales such as “Y’know, girls are confusing” or “It’s easy for a fella to find himself muddled up and doing stupid things” or my personal non-favorite, “An adult is just a kid with more body hair.” All of which are presented as reasonable excuses that the pliant John would be a fool not to accept.
In fairness, Vonnegut wrote this story in the 1960s, a time when a man's treating his wife and son so abhorrently was not called onto the moral carpet in any significant manner. But it’s not Vonnegut I’m faulting here; it’s Posner. Knowing how out of tune this story is, why on earth did he include it? It’s true that George’s marriage breakdown also provides Tom with some insight into his own marital bad behavior with his wife Kate (Bree Welch). But even the worthwhile moral of “respect and appreciate what you have” cannot withstand the repugnant platter on which it is delivered.
Aside from cute, cute and funny, and off-putting, there was one other thing I kept writing in my notes: Why? Why am I watching this play? Why now? Why did Stages think this was something we needed to see?
Yes, Stages assembled a talented cast for us and yes, director Sally Edmundson teases some really strong moments from them. But so what? More practically, how does this fit into Stages' programming, which alternates between utter toe-tapping fluff ( Honky Tonk Angels) and heady drama (Posner’s own Stupid Fucking Bird)? How does a play that satisfies neither genre squeak in?
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I have no doubt that love is a subject we are all invested in, and goodness knows these days we could use a little more of it as an antidote to the world outside our doors. But love presented as pat, frothy or insulting is not the kind of love that will cure us of our ills. Nor will a hit and miss storyline woo us into enjoying mindless humor for the evening.
If we learn nothing of value, have nothing to discuss post-show or haven’t had the guts busted out of us laughing, what is the point? What is the why?
Maybe I’ll let Mr. Vonnegut get the last word in: “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”
Who Am I This Time runs through February 12 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21-$65.