Video is Not the Killer

Mid-century detective stories provide rich fodder for venues of all stripes, from the commercial glitz of Broadway, where The 39 Steps is about to wrap up a four and half year run ("Alfred Hitchcock meets hilarious" declared its early publicity), to the DIY inventiveness of the New York International Fringe Festival, where Race McCloud, Private Eye) premiered last summer. The most recent production to spoof and celebrate the gumshoe genre is Radio Star, produced by Horse Trade Theater Group and Tanya O'Debra at the Red Room on East Fourth Street, which presents itself as a live broadcast of a 1940's radio drama, with a twist: O'Debra, who also wrote the script, plays each of the parts. As a governing conceit, the stage-performance-as-radio-broadcast yields fun results. The performance space stays unchanged throughout the production, which begins just before O'Debra enters the theater, dressed in a fur stole, and concludes with her exit just under an hour later. As the show's bow-tied Announcer and Soundman, J. Lincoln Hallowell, Jr. creates sound effects the old fashioned way (tap shoes indicate walking, the lid of wood box mimics doors closing) and also via a Mac laptop, which plays music to set ambiance (composed by Andrew Mauriello) and commercials to set time period (the show is purportedly sponsored by "Iron Lung Cigarettes"). Hallowell's presence, like the sounds he cues, goes a long way toward creating the radio show atmosphere in a minimal amount of space, and especially toward supporting O'Debra as she takes on the play's varied, delightfully silly roles.

Perched on a tall chair and reading from a music stand, O'Debra nails each of the gumshoe archetypes. The story revolves around private dick Nick McKittrick, hired by the beautiful, unflappable Fanny Larue to solve the murder of her newly deceased husband. Along the way he encounters a bumbling inventor named Wally, a defensive secretary named Betty Buttons, and a disgusting manservent named Lucifer, among others. As a playwright, O'Debra peppers the script with punning innuendo ("Don't test me! The results will not be positive!") and winking anachronism (snuggies). As an actor under the direction of Peter Cook, she delivers each performance sans irony. It's a smart choice that keeps the pace up and the laughs funny through to the play's cute, final revelation.

Radio Star premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where minimal sets and virtuosic performances help U.S. productions first to get themselves overseas and, once there, to stand out from the pack. Those qualities prove equally useful in The Red Room, a theater sometimes misused by less minimalist productions attempting elaborate set changes in the small playing space. With its intimate house, raised seats, and (yes) red walls, The Red Room makes a perfect home for Radio Star's broadcast-as-theater, fully encapsulating the production. O'Debra's disciplined, vivacious performance fills the space from red wall to red wall.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post