Review: The Next Arena’s 'Vonnegut USA'

Erin Conley 

  • Los Angeles Critic

Everyone has at least some familiarity with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. While he is best known for his novels, most notably Slaughterhouse-Five, he also published a few collections of short stories. Five of these stories provide the inspiration for Vonnegut USA, a world premiere play currently being presented at LA’s Atwater Village Theatre by The Next Arena. 

Presented in two short acts totaling less than two hours, Vonnegut USA is an anthology of sorts, consisting of three vignettes that take place in the same world. While they all share a couple of common threads and characters and explore similar themes, the stories are self-contained. The transitions between the different tales were so seamless it was almost hard to tell where one story ended and the next began, which probably was not helped by the fact that some of the actors and actresses played multiple roles. 

The setting is described only as “sometime just north of the midway point of the last century” and “somewhere in the northeastern region of America.” We get to observe two connected, yet different communities—the city of Ilium, a booming, industrial town and the home of the headquarters of the Federal Forge & Foundry, and the nearby, quieter suburb of Spruce Falls. Adapted and directed by Scott Rognlien, with blessings from Vonnegut’s estate, the play excels when it comes to world building. You get such a clear sense of the era and the atmosphere, and even though I have never read any of the short stories upon which Vonnegut USA is based, the intended spirit came through very clearly. It helps that the characters often address the audience directly, as if Vonnegut himself were narrating. While these bits often felt a bit exposition-heavy, it was easy to see why they were there—a book or short story has the unique luxury of allowing the reader fully inside the world and the characters’ heads, which can easily be lost when performed if there is not a way to dispense this type of information. 

The cast was excellent, nailing the wry, ironic humor and optimism of the piece. The first vignette told the story of a con created by two co-workers that gets a bit out of hand when the long-suffering secretary starts asking too many questions. The second follows a normally meek man who has a rare violent outburst when his somewhat tactless coworker pushes him too far. The last takes a look at two struggling marriages, as seen by a storm window salesman with a knack for observation. Many of the actors (Rob Beddall, Keith Blaney, Jason Frost, Marjorie LeWit, Carryl Lynn, Darren Mangler, Paul Michael Nieman, Eric Normington, Maia Peters, Paul Plunkett, JR Reed, Rob Smith, and Matt Taylor) pulled double or even triple duty. The action was also framed as needed by video projections to further set the tone of the time period. 

There is nothing flashy or grand about the stories told here—they are small, ordinary stories about ordinary people living in a time and place on the edge of change. Not only is Ilium and its surrounding area feeling the effects of industrialization and new management, but women are also beginning to take control of their own lives and careers in new ways. It’s clear the action takes place right around the time of the birth of the feminist movement, and the third vignette in particular really explores this. One woman realizes she does not have to stay in an unhappy marriage, and another goes behind her husband’s back to publish a novel, carving out her own path. There is nothing incredibly unique or groundbreaking about Vonnegut USA, but it is a thoughtful, enjoyable examination of small town life in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of one of our most celebrated authors. 

Vonnegut USA runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through November 20th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets for Fridays and Saturdays are $20, but the Sunday matinees are pay-what-you-can. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit 

Photo: Maia Peters