You know those “Saturday Night Live’’ skits that go on and on with neither purpose nor point, vainly attempting to defy the law of diminishing returns?
Well, imagine one of those sketches elongated to 90 minutes and you’ve got “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind.’’
This exercise in labored whimsy traveled a long and tortured path on the way to its world premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, and every bump of that journey shows in the misshapen “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind,’’ directed by Cliff Fannin Baker.
KURT VONNEGUT’S MAKE UP YOUR MIND
So it goes, to borrow a phrase.
Vonnegut wrote nearly a dozen versions of the play, but he was unable to settle on a final one before he died in 2007. So playwright Nicky Silver (“The Lyons’’) valiantly signed up for what was probably an impossible rescue mission. Silver patched together a play from the multiple versions, adding the character of Vonnegut himself to the mix, using the late author’s words from other writings.
It doesn’t help fix the play’s problems. I’m not sure what could, frankly. While there is some fleeting evidence of Vonnegut’s mordant wit, the vein of absurdist black comedy that he mined so successfully in “Slaughterhouse-Five’’ and other novels leads mainly to dead ends in “Make Up Your Mind.’’
As a matter of authorial voice, Vonnegut’s deadpan affect works much better on the page than on the stage. As for subject matter: Comedies that achieve greatness, such as the Marx Brothers’ war satire “Duck Soup,’’ are about something, however anarchic they may be in form. But “Make Up Your Mind’’ never decides what it wants to be, other than a grab bag of jokes and random bits.
There’s a leaden irony in all this indecision, since that is what “Make Up Your Mind’’ is ostensibly about. Its chief protagonist, played by Barlow Adamson, is one Roland Stackhouse, a former telephone installer who has founded a company called Make Up Your Mind, Incorporated. Roland offers help to the chronically indecisive, forcing them to make a decision and stick to it. How? If clients don’t abide by their decisions to, say, quit smoking, Roland’s enforcer will beat the living ambivalence out of them.
One hapless client on the receiving end of the enforcer’s wrath is played by the inventive Richard Snee, the only one of the four-member cast who’s able to transcend the material and consistently garner some laughs. But Snee is also saddled with the task of portraying Vonnegut, who periodically materializes to muse, not very fruitfully, on such matters as loneliness, the dogs of his youth, and the impact his devotion to writing has had on his relationships. Vonnegut’s presence is also evoked by Eric Levenson’s set, a series of white panels adorned with squiggly black line drawings, including eyes and Vonnegutian mustaches.
Roland’s newest client is Karen Finch (Tracy Goss), the wife of a fabulously wealthy and powerful man who wants Karen to take lovers because, she says, he thinks it will add “depth to [their] relationship.’’ So the decision she has to make is to pick a lover – and the first lover she settles on is Roland himself. The pair subsequently find themselves in an unexpected national spotlight, thanks to the aforementioned husband.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Roland owes a lot of money to his enforcer. If the enforcer is not promptly paid, he is threatening to get his pound of flesh, quite literally. Roland’s hotheaded father, a marriage counselor named George who is played by Ross Bickell, conceives of a way to solve Roland’s money problem.
Though Vonnegut obviously didn’t stint on effort when it came to “Make Up Your Mind,’’ it still feels thin and tossed-off, hobbled by a ramshackle structure and arbitrary plot twists. Even on the level of cartoonish farce, it doesn’t work. Near the end comes a bit of self-conscious meta-commentary on the play’s themelessness, as Roland, Karen, and George kick around the question of what, exactly, they have learned from their misadventures.
Only the most generic answers emerge from their exchange, which, like the play itself, leaves the audience with the sour feeling that the joke is on them.