Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Theo Ubique Theatre Company, at the Heartland Studio Theater. Written immediately after Kurt Vonnegut finished what many consider his finest work, the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, this play has at its center the same contradictory feelings. On the one hand, Vonnegut is a hard-bitten nihilist, certain that life is absurd, war is pointless, heroes are assholes, and most people are utterly lost and doomed to unhappiness. On the other hand, he yearns for something more in life–something to believe in, someone (like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five) who can lead us to a higher plane.

These opposing points of view give the novel depth and an emotional heart. But in Happy Birthday, Wanda June they only contribute another messy layer to a work full of half-baked ideas, mixed messages, pompous lecturing, and stock characters who clearly are supposed to be more than cartoons but aren’t. It doesn’t help that Vonnegut is a much less subtle writer for the stage than for the page, or that the techniques he perfected in his fiction–trippy narratives fragmented by constant digressions–do not serve him well in the theater.

Still, directors Beverle Bloch and Fred Anzevino do a nice job, spinning a passably interesting evening out of this dross. Simone Jubyna, Mike Driscoll, and Ryan Hall deserve special praise for finding the emotional truth behind Vonnegut’s sometimes glib writing.