RadioTheatre is just what it sounds like: live theater done in the style of old-school radio broadcasts. I’m old enough to remember Mystery Theater, that 1970s coda to the era of radio dramas, and RadioTheatre features fine actors who have clearly studied the style: acting with only their voices, facial expressions, a few hand gestures at most, and supported only by shafts of light that let us see their faces, with meticulously arranged and timed music and sound effects to stretch and heighten the tension. And tension is what drives this particular set of tales. Every October I like to see a Halloween-related show, but this year I missed out, so I was delighted to see that RadioTheatre’s Christmastime offering consisted of ghost stories.
The Christmas ghost story to end all Christmas ghost stories is, of course, A Christmas Carol, and the company anchors five original “radio” tales by Dan Bianchi with a tour-de-force scene from the Dickens classic. Company stalwart Frank Zilinyi grabs with gusto this opportunity to chew the nonexistent scenery to bits as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, all with his voice. It’s radio acting at its lush best: thrillingly, terrifyingly overblown while at the same time precisely calibrated.
Bianchi’s stories, softer, sometimes touching, sometimes scary, all taking place in one era or another of Olde New York, resemble more the tales of Saki, with a shiver of Poe and a glimmer of The Twilight Zone, than Dickens. Only one, a parable of grace and parental love from beyond the grave, fails to hit home, not because it isn’t a good story but because it takes considerably too long to get to the payoff. The other four are lean and move along swiftly, whether towards a punch or a caress.
The best, perhaps, riffs off of “The Monkey’s Paw.” A widower, spending his first Christmas Eve alone after his wife’s death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, sets a table for two with a holiday feast, puts a smile on his face, and waits for his ghostly wish to come true. But when it does, terror gets the better of him and a ghastly disappointment ensues. Another story that stuck with me is a subtle tale of a young woman who keeps reappearing in a driving snowstorm even after her life force seems to have, shall we say, given up the ghost.
The final tale, “The Wishing Inn,” set in the past but resonant with Bloomberg-era New York, concerns a spirit whose will is so powerful it resurrects not only an apparition of itself but a Wall Street inn that no longer exists, having been torn down to make way for a financial institution. Walking home from the show through the New York City streets on which these stories take place, I honestly felt spooked, not only on the quiet side streets but among the knots of Friday night party animals shouting up University Place. Death and terror seemed to lurk everywhere.
Ghosts of Christmas Past runs through January 12 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St. For tickets visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.