Longacre Lea unravels the twisted string theory of Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle'

AND ANOTHER THING: Danny Gavigan, left, and Michael John Casey in Longacre Lea Productions' take on Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel.
AND ANOTHER THING: Danny Gavigan, left, and Michael John Casey in Longacre Lea Productions' take on Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel. (Elliot Homburg)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Given Kurt Vonnegut's colorful, confrontational style, the new stage adaptation of his "Cat's Cradle" from Longacre Lea Productions is unexpectedly calm. It opens with shafts of light catching three stationary actors talking across a patch of darkness; their tone is factual, cool. It's easygoing, with intriguing hints of film noir.

That can't last, of course, for "Cat's Cradle" is jampacked with Vonnegut's characteristically searing sarcasm and vaudeville tempo. The 1963 novel is 127 chapters long but less than 300 pages in the standard paperback edition; the terse chapters are like stand-up jokes, or voodoo needles. The book is also a dance macabre, with a plot driven by the atomic winds of World War II as Vonnegut parades mad scientists, a gorgeous dame and a peculiar new religion in a plot about the end of the world.

You could take any number of approaches getting this book on its feet. A calypso musical "Cat's Cradle" appeared recently in New York, inspired by the book's made-up island religion, Bokonon, and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly has a film version in development.

Though director-adapter Kathleen Akerley deploys some inspired low-tech tricks come the story's inevitable apocalypse, she generally opts for the methodical. (The lean, disciplined production is in the small Callan Theatre at Catholic University.) Her emphasis is on the investigation led by Jonah, the writer who wants to know exactly what Felix Hoenikker, one of the (made-up) inventors of the atomic bomb, was doing as the device was dropped on Hiroshima.

As Jonah, Michael Glenn is like a throwback detective, asking and listening, exuding a low-key command, and there's an elegance and composure to the sleuthing through the first act. After that, though, you begin to feel the sluggish weight of all the exposition -- somebody or other telling Jonah how it was. Or how it is on this loopy island nation they're all heading for, where the eldest son of the A-bomb scientist has exiled himself, where Bokonon is both forbidden and universally embraced, and where we might discover the secret of a sinister compound known as "ice nine."

It's brave of Akerley not to camp this up. Even tall Danny Gavigan in drag as Hoenikker's grown daughter is miles short of over-the-top; the show simply doesn't come at you as comedy. It's too bad that the audience never gets in the habit of laughing at Vonnegut's dark gags, but on the other hand the serious-minded (and long) production creates some genuine chills as Jonah stumbles into his end-of-the-world story.

The early-1960s costumes look great, and precise portrayals come from Gavigan (also nifty as a bartender and a cabdriver), Suzanne Richard (as a wry prostitute and as Hoenikker's midget son Newt), Christopher Henley (a prickly scientist, a jaded diplomat) and Heather Haney (a cheerful Hoosier). The plot they're in is thick, mischievous and grim in the Vonnegut spirit, even if the dance of death doesn't exactly kick high.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Cat's Cradle

by Kurt Vonnegut. Adapted and directed by Kathleen Akerley. Costumes, Gail Stewart Beach; set, Tom Donahue; lights, John Burkland; sound/original music, Neil McFadden; choreography, Heather Haney. With Joe Brack, Michael John Casey, Jay Hardee, Marcia Kirkland and Abby Wood. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Sept. 5 at the Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 202-460-2188 or visit

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