Unfortunately, there are only flickers of Kurt Vonnegut’s dark and playful genius in “Make Up Your Mind.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind, written by Kurt Vonnegut. Assembled by Nicky Silver. Directed by Cliff Fannin Baker. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, through November 30.
By Bill Marx
In anticipation of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s world premiere staging of playwright Nicky Silver’s version of Make Up Your Mind, I picked up two early Kurt Vonnegut novels – 1952’s Player Piano and 1959’s The Sirens of Titan. I hadn’t read his Orwellian rookie novel before, but it was my second exposure to The Sirens of Titan, which I devoured back in the 1960s, when it was reissued on the heels of the success of Slaughterhouse-Five. Player Piano slings too much social message for my taste, though I love the Ghost Shirt Society, rebels who defend themselves (unsuccessfully) against the authoritarianism of white man’s technology by donning the bulletproof magical garb Indians wore in the late nineteenth century (also unsuccessfully) to ward off the onrush of European immigration. The set-up is prescient of Vonnegut mischief to come.
I was not disappointed by Sirens, which remains by far my favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. It is a wildly inventive misanthropic fantasia that skips through time and space and gives us, for the first time, the world of Tralfamadore and its mad, immortal, and mechanical masters of the universe. Humans are little more than intricate machines to be exploited (through the mass eradication of brainwashed mercenaries disguised as Martians) into worshipping at The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Vonnegut even has the chutzpah to reveal the purpose of human history — to deliver a part necessary to repair a Tralfamadorian spaceship marooned on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. The novel’s much put-upon protagonist, Malachi Constant, shuttles back and forth from that orb, only to die, alone, waiting for a bus in Indianapolis.
The comic exhilaration of the novel’s dream flow counters the earthbound gravity of its mockery of humanity’s hubris. Vonnegut brings the anti-optimism strain of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce (who also dabbled in machinery gone dangerously haywire) into the age of technology. H. L. Mencken’s vision of American suckerdom goes galactic in Sirens, though Vonnegut’s vision of radical alienation is also rooted in the genocide and trauma of World War II. Weird as it may sound, Vonnegut is our pop provincial version of Samuel Beckett. The latter’s angst comes via a poetic/vaudevillian Modernism, while Vonnegut’s genre hijinks are much more whimsical and slapstick — the universe as a zero-sum pinball machine. Yes, Vonnegut’s cynicism contains some sentimental, humanist trapdoors, the absurdist gospel of a meaningless universe redeemed by love. But the grim bottom floor remains the same for both writers – hope expected or deferred is but an illusion, sometimes implanted by a sympathetic Tralfamadorian.
Unfortunately, there are only flickers of Vonnegut’s dark and playful genius in Make Up Your Mind, a “sex farce for four people” that he completed as a working draft in 1985 and was staged on off-Broadway in 1993. The writer continued to tinker with the piece, coming up with a number of versions. Now dramatist Nicky Silver has “assembled” Vonnegut’s second, third, and fourth thoughts into a finished script. Frankly, it would have been better to have respected the famed writer’s wishes and left the play in the drawer, because as it is this is no more than a wan sketch, a sort of broad burlesque routine. There are some chuckles here and there over the course of the satire’s ninety minutes, but Make Up Your Mind feels like a tried (and dated) retread of frisky material Vonnegut had manipulated with aplomb decades before.
Set in 1986, the script deals with the questionable business headed by Roland Stackhouse (Barlow Adamson), a former telephone worker who claims to be able to help indecisive people learn to make up their minds. His form of New Age therapy makes heavy use of Raymond, a no-nonsense enforcer whose means of concentrating the minds of Stackhouse’s clients involves breaking legs and throttling necks. Into Stackhouse’s office hobbles the patient Ottis Fletcher (Richard Snee), beaten up after he lit up a verboten cigarette, Roland’s contentious father (Ross Bickell), who runs a marriage counseling service down the hall, and newbie Karen Finch (Tracy Goss), wife of one of the richest men in the world (he just bought South Korea, a joke Vonnegut likes so much he uses it twice). Karen and Roland have an immediate sexual attraction, and they go off for a night of titanic passion, which turns out to be a complicated move when the evening’s cavorting is released as a film that becomes a box office blockbuster. Kurt Vonnegut (Snee) shows up every once in a while to talk about dog poisoning and other matters.
Vonnegut is fascinated by pornography in his books, perhaps because it is a profitable means of depicting pleasure that he could never debunk. A major problem for the SpeakEasy Stage Company production is that the erotic vibes between Goss and Adamson are nil — their relationship seems more like a doting mother fussing over her wayward son. With the sexual angle of the supposed funny business going nowhere, we are left with Snee and Adamson doing their best to goose up lame patter and juice up one-joke situations, sometimes desperately resorting to mugging. Bickell blusters up a titter or two, while Goss steamrolls her way through the role, hardly ever varying her inflection. Director Cliff Fannin Baker pokes the inaction along via sit-com rhythms (Vonnegut and Silver have characters pop in and out as if the office was a talk show), while animations of some of Vonnegut’s illustrations are introduced occasionally to vary the visuals.
There a moments in Make Up Your Mind, such as when Vonnegut alludes to the debilitating power of loneliness (a favorite theme of the writer), that suggests something more is at stake than geriatric silliness about how a ‘blue’ movie and some convenient deaths help everybody get along. But there is not enough of substance here to do justice to a very fine writer. Vonnegut may have never stopped revising the script, but he made up his mind to leave the play unstaged after the 1993 production, and he was wise. If only Raymond could have seen to it that it had stayed that way.