|L-R: Nate Steiwachs, Lisa Landino, Beth Griffith, Dan Burkharth, and Alexander Reed in RADIO MYSTERY 1949. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.|
Radio Mystery 1949 by Dennis Richard, currently premiering at Clarion Theatre on East 26th Street in Manhattan, is a cartoonish period piece with pretensions to deeper significance. Set in a New York radio station in 1949, back in pre-television days (when radio networks had to rely solely on our auditory rather than our visual sense to entertain and retain their audiences), the play revolves around the broadcasting of a live radio crime drama that goes badly awry when an unanticipated real life danger intervenes.
Norman Arizona (Dan Burkharth) is the producer of a radio mystery drama show sponsored by “Blue Coal” on the Mutual Broadcasting System; he is so desperately afraid that the network is about to cancel his show that he has not only taken to drink but has even considered committing suicide on air as a dramatic gesture to keep the show alive. His fears have spread to the other actors on his show as well: Margo (Beth Griffith), Vespa (Lisa Landino), and Chicky (Alexander Reed), as well as to the station’s sound effects man, Chubby ( Nate Steiwachs).
Vespa’s problems are also compounded in the most trivial fashion: she is Croatian and is being forced to play the rose of a Latina which she finds linguistically difficult . And Chicky has another much more serious problem: the neighborhood mob intends to kill him.
With only seconds to go before the latest radio mystery drama is to go on the air, one of the show’s actors still has not arrived. At the last moment, Radio Nick (Fergus Scully) walks in but no one is quite sure whether he actually is the missing actor who Norman hired in a drunken stupor the night before or a terrorist for whom the police are searching. When Radio Nick dumps his duffle bag on the ground and challenges the other actors to guess what is in it that might be ticking, the latter alternative seems much more likely. And with that, the real life drama involving Radio Nick effectively supplants the mystery drama that was being aired.
According to the play’s press release, the play is much more than a mere period piece. Rather, the playwright “is calling attention to an uncertainty that is peculiar to our times.” These are the times in which “we are barraged with stories of unexpected bombings and mass murders, but we never know the real reasons behind these acts….leaving society gasping for explanations that never come.” Presumably, the playwright also is alluding to issues of life imitating art, questions of ethnic identity, and the degree to which we tend to focus on the trivial in the face of the truly consequential.
Well, I guess one could look at the play in those ways but if those really were the playwright’s intentions, I’m afraid he didn’t succeed. Despite the cast’s best efforts (and their exertions are truly considerable), the play still comes across as nothing more than a trivial comedic romp with two-dimensional cardboard characters, albeit one with occasional humorous moments.