Just the title, Radio Mystery 1949, sounded intriguing. A late-running radio mystery show, Mystery Theatre, was still on the air when I was a kid in the 1970s. I used to listen to it with my parents, not realizing at the time that it was a link to a popular genre of the past.
Two generations further on, Radio Mystery 1949 promises another such link: “a post-WWII radio murder mystery is outdone by real-life drama when a mysterious actor carries what may or may not be a bomb into a sound stage during a live performance.”
That does indeed sum up the plot of Dennis Richard’s new play, directed by Richmond Shepard. Sadly, it’s scripted and staged so ineptly that it becomes an ordeal worse than what the mysterious potential bomber Radio Nick (Fergus Scully) inflicts on Norman Arizona’s (Dan Burkharth) terrorized radio company.
Though some of the actors manage to display flashes of their abilities, the stilted script with its long stretches of flat dialogue and gaping plot holes leaves little room for warmth, humor, or tension. It doesn’t help that Scully, a recent cast substitution, is still very much on book, which throws the pacing off. But the long opening scene before he arrives is paced almost as poorly, even with actors who know all their lines.
Beleaguered by troublesome company members and pressure for ratings, Norman (a painfully stilted performance by Burkharth) in a drunken stupor has apparently invited an unknown actor into the company. When Radio Nick turns up, script in hand, just in time for the broadcast, no one actually knows if he’s the guy Norm hired. But it’s an enormous relief when the radio-play-within-the-play finally begins, for at last the production’s desperate overacting and off-kilter timing fits right in.
Well, for a little while, anyway. Scully with his now-appropriate script, along with Italian-American stereotype Chicky (Alexander Reed) and fluttery Margo (Beth Griffith), enact their overblown dialogue with wacky élan. But as soon as that scene ends the radio mystery collapses into completely uninteresting police dialogue, after which the play itself descends back into grating awkwardness.
Also not helping is the other female character, Vesna (Lisa Landino), who could have been funny if she hadn’t been saddled with a supposedly Croatian accent that goes in and out (and when it’s in sounds like a half-baked German one with a touch of Yiddish). Nate Steiwachs has an excellent deadpan demeanor as Chubby, the sound effects man, but seems to be imported from another play with a different tone. And Griffith’s comic abilities are so far above the production surrounding her that her numerous funny moments seem incongruous.
And then there’s the biggest plot hole: When Radio Nick intimates there’s a time bomb in his bag, the other characters go into hostage mode, but why? The possible terrorist does nothing to keep them in the studio. When Vesna moves to flee, it’s Norm, not Nick, who prevents her, insisting (in another beyond-belief story element) that they finish their live broadcast no matter what happens.
The concept of a live radio broadcast turning into a kind of reality show might ring bells for today’s audience if it were handled cleverly. But the play saves its worst dramaturgical offense for the end, when it resorts to a disembodied voice (a deus ex machina? a magically omniscient hostage negotiator? Zeus?) to deliver its supposed message, one that in a well-crafted work might have been effective and relevant to today’s milieu of mass shootings and domestic terror. But, sad to say, I wished I could have made like Vesna and made for the door.
Radio Mystery 1949 is at the Clarion Theatre, 309 East 26th Street, Manhattan.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00DT9DO7A][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0595131905][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B006FSRSFQ][amazon template=iframe image&asin=161614646X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0965330710]