When I think of writer Kurt VonneguT, I think of his dark satires, like Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. But in Aaron Posner’s 2014 stage adaptation Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love), which is based on three of Vonnegut's softer short stories (A Long Walk to Forever, Who Am I This Time? and Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son), a gentler side of the author's works take center stage.
Following a theater troupe in New England — "the finest community theatre in central Connecticut!" — love stories are weaved together on and off stage. Directed by Sally Edmundson, the play opens with narrator Tom Newton (Philip Lehl) offering wistful commentary on the vicissitudes of love, like the youthful impetuosity of a soldier going AWOL so he can romantically reconnect with a girl who is engaged to someone else, a romance between two actors who fall in love while performing A Streetcar Named Desire, and an affair gone awry between a glamorous Hollywood star and a writer.
The humorous and sentimental (but not saccharine) romances in Who Am I This Time? might just be the respite audiences are seeking in these cynical times. There are plenty of dark plays about the flaws of love, so it is refreshing to see the funnier and joyful aspects of the “conundrums” of love. Even the romantic disappointments in the play are tinged with a hopeful belief that, eventually, things will get better.
As much as I admire Kurt Vonnegut and the originality of Posner’s adaptation, the stellar performances are the reason to see this production at Stages Repertory Theatre. I could have dispensed with the musical numbers between the story lines, but that is a minor thing. What kept me totally entertained was the talent. Lehl deftly moved from scene to scene as both a narrator and part of his own romantic storyline as Tom Newton, with the excellent Bree Welch, who plays his wife, Kate Newton. One of the highlights of the show was watching Welch also play Blanche DuBois in the community theater’s production of Streetcar. Her comedic timing was impeccable and the entire cast mastered the demands of physical comedy that stops shy of slapstick, yet is wildly entertaining. The audience was laughing out loud at scenes that could have easily slipped into disaster, but, happily, never did.
Houston favorite Deborah Hope was delightful as Doris Sawyer, the director of the community theater, whose pithy quips about acting and life were perfectly timed. She also plays the glamorous and petulant Gloria Hilton, whose entrance is unforgettable. The audience laughs during her time on stage, whether she is playing Doris or Gloria, as she infuses scenes with charisma and energy without upstaging her fellow performers—a talent in itself.
I was not familiar with actor Jason Duga, but his transformation from the shy local boy into Stanley in the community theatre’s production of Streetcar is amazing. When he is being approached to audition for the play, he asks, “Who am I this time?” and the audience becomes aware of the significance of the title. He interacts well with Emily Neves, who shines in multiple roles as well.
Josh Morrison’s Verne Miller, the local plumber—“I’ll repair what your husband ‘fixed!'”—was also fantastic as George, who has an ill-fated affair with the glamorous Gloria. His transformation between characters was so extreme it took me a moment to realize that it was him playing another part. When his son (played by Blake Jackson) tells him that he should have known better, he concedes, but reminds everyone how easy it is to have your “compass” break when navigating the terrain of love. Morrison’s performance evokes the spirit intended of Vonnegut’s characters: they are flawed, but likable, and thus worthy of second chances.
Whether watching the superlative Welch, stunning Hope or the chameleon Duga, Who Am I This Time? reminds us that the actors bring the material to life. You don’t need to travel to the East or West Coast for impressive acting. It's right here in Houston.
Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love)
Thru Feb 12. From $21. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3210 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. stagestheatre.com