There’s no mistaking the author of “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind.” SpeakEasy Stage Company is eager to send the message that its latest production is indeed an unexpected artifact — the world premiere of a play by the much-loved American author, who died in 2007.
Besides appending Vonnegut’s name to the title, the production includes an actor’s onstage portrayal of the writer himself, as an oracular figure delivering periodic monologues. Projected images of Vonnegut’s handwritten notes — and even, at one point, a looming likeness of his eye peering through a window — help create a sense of immersion in the author’s imagination.
So it’s fitting that a plush Vonnegut doll, complete with fabric renderings of his curly hair and bushy mustache, sits on a table and keeps watch on a recent rehearsal, in an upstairs studio at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion.
There, the full four-member cast is working on a scene that features one character mistakenly addressing a Catholic cardinal with the honorific “Your Majesty,” and another delivering a speech about life and Easter eggs that seems either profound or inscrutable — perhaps both. In the fast-moving style of Vonnegut, laced with satirical barbs and societal observations, the jokes can pack a heavier punch.
“This show has multiple styles, it’s not just one thing. And Vonnegut is not one thing,” reflects director Cliff Fannin Baker after the rehearsal. “Normally you start a play and ask: Is this a farce? Is this a piece of absurdist theater? Is this a drama? [This play is] all of it.”
It’s a lot of things, but until this year it wasn’t finished. The play, about a New York City man who develops a surprising technique to cure his clients of their indecisiveness, had fizzled after an informal 1993 reading in East Hampton, N.Y., for which Vonnegut gave an in-person introduction.
Much more recently, when a trio of New York City producers were unable to secure the rights for a different show, Vonnegut’s literary executor — lawyer Donald Farber, a longtime behind-the-scenes force in the city’s theater scene — surprised them by suggesting they pull this one out of the bottom drawer.
Given the play’s subject matter, it’s perhaps ironic that Vonnegut left behind about a dozen versions of the script, complete with vastly different endings. Baker initially stitched together a working version for a reading, but all involved agreed it wasn’t working. So playwright Nicky Silver was asked to “assemble” a final version.
Silver, who made his Broadway playwriting debut in 2012 with “The Lyons,” wasn’t interested at first in brushing up another writer’s drafts. But he met with the producing team — chiefly motivated, he says, by the prospect of receiving a copy of the unpublished play to pass along, on the sly, to a friend with a bit of a Vonnegut obsession. Then he read it. He was hooked.
Farber sent over three large boxes stuffed with Vonnegut’s writings, including all the incarnations of the script plus notes and ephemera, including unpublished letters. Silver, who says he hadn’t read any Vonnegut in years, went on a crash course of the author’s work. He cut and pasted from among the various surviving drafts of the play to come up with a finished version.
All the words are Vonnegut’s, though Silver added the conceit of putting the author onstage as a character in the play — a sort of ethereal presence offering insight and commentary. These speeches come from various sources, including the 1981 collection “Palm Sunday.”
“In this play he’s not writing realism, and he doesn’t try to suggest that he was doing something other than manipulating rather absurdist characters. Acknowledging that felt very right to me. So I looked for things Kurt Vonnegut said that seemed to relate very closely to the play,” Silver explains.
Set in 1986, the briskly paced 90-minute comedy centers on a former telephone company employee (played by Barlow Adamson), who advises clients including a billionaire’s wife (Tracy Goss) and a talkative compulsive smoker (Richard Snee, who also portrays Vonnegut) on how to stop waffling and make up their minds. (Ross Bickell is also on board as the protagonist’s disapproving father.)
Much of the humor in “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind” is light. But Baker points to the satirical slant, and the troubled father/son relationship, as heavier elements that will hook Vonnegut fans who show up looking for a more layered statement. It’s among those fans that he hopes to find much of his audience. The appeal of the writer, Baker says, cuts across generations.
“There are hundreds of thousands of young people who are as turned on by Vonnegut as I was in college. He is a rebel. He does not protect the status quo in any way, shape, or form. In fact, he spits at it. That’s exciting,” Baker says.
Vonnegut is best known for novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions,” as well as numerous collections of short stories and essays. Though the published preface to his 1970 play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” seemed to promise that he was turning entirely to playwriting from then on, his work for the stage remained a relatively minor part of his oeuvre. Before working on the original “Make Up Your Mind,” he wrote a few other plays that went unpublished or unproduced.
But his positive experience with “Wanda June” made a lasting impression.
“Kurt would write books, and it was lonely,” Farber recalls. “When he got into writing plays, we all assembled at the theater and we had a ball. It was an adventure for him. It was an opportunity to socialize and work on the play and be around the theater instead of sitting in a room by himself typing out a piece of paper and throwing it in the wastebasket.”
Even with that earlier work, it was a challenge for Vonnegut to winnow the script down to a final version. Farber says Vonnegut worked on the ending until the last moment, then handed over five different versions and told him to pick one.
Despite the onstage advice he’d give years later, he couldn’t make up his mind.