at Sheffield’s

Radio, in its heyday of dramatic serials and farfetched adventures, offered food for the imagination in a way that television never has. Instead, the argument goes, television stunts creative growth by giving us such complete images that no room remains for personal, imaginative exploration.

7 Second Delay, an hour-long comedy with two actors and approximately 15 characters (I lost count near the end), combines the best of both worlds: images and characters created by voice and sound, characters supported by enough visual hints to set the audience free to imagine the rest.

Written and performed by Brian Hamill and Tom Ciappa, 7 Second Delay presents a glimpse into the world of Buddy Broderick (Hamill), an aging, fading deejay on KORN, “the big ear,” a small AM radio station in Portland, Oregon. Broderick hosts a talk show featuring an eclectic collection of callers and drop-in guests, all of them conjured up by Lynyrd Bashaw (Ciappa). Broderick is the classic schmaltzy host, bringing a little forced humor into the seriousness of everyday lives. He is “your buddy, Buddy Broderick,” whose “mission is to make the world a little better place to live, in our little allotment of time . . . one hour.” The first caller, lonely Mrs. Kipp (Ciappa with a gray wig and shawl), sets the tone for the rest of that hour. Broderick offers Mrs. Kipp consolation and stock tips, but he can’t keep from exploiting the situation by telling his listeners how Mr. Kipp died, crushed beneath a tractor during a tractor pull contest at the local fair.

Broderick then introduces a British guest, Dr. Phibia (Ciappa with a pipe and wool cap), as “an odd duck, queer as a three-dollar bill, but I like him.” Phibia, who studies frogs, describes for Broderick his recent creation of a tunnel system, called “toadways,” that allows frogs to cross safely under highways when they’re making their journeys to spawn. He had considered the problem solved, until he discovered that the frogs, in their zeal to mate, were “backing up and shacking up in the toadways,” and so blocking the tunnel. The solution was the addition of “little off-ramps” to facilitate traffic.

Broderick listens and laughs with the doctor, then insults him with an irreverent query to the audience: “Bored? Me too. Want to go out and eat some fried frog legs?”

Ciappa again changes props, and so the hour progresses. More strange, delightful characters appear: the dog-show guest host who proves that Chihuahuas are statistically more dangerous than pit bulls; B’lam Phakete, the Ethiopian soldier who witnesses a mysterious total eclipse of the sun; Skip Ambrosia, delivering a progress report from the deck of a schooner caught offshore in a devastating storm; and the Cajun chef with a recipe for stew that requires 140 ingredients: “Start with 25 stewing chickens, and you got to name the chickens. Then grab any 110 spices you have. Add gasoline, light it, grab a Bible, and run like hell. Go to church, and when you come back, it’ll be done.”

I did wonder, at one point, where the “normal” people were. Has radio been abandoned to the kooks of the world, or are the kooks the only ones who can appreciate a buddy who asks little from his world, the Buddy who signs off with his usual comforting statement that, although he hasn’t accomplished much, he has at least gotten himself and his audience through another hour?

The question of normality, I decided, was simply not relevant. Broderick and his guests philosophize and speculate, but the show never moralizes. Broderick’s strongest piece of advice may be his comment: “Life’s a gas; if you don’t believe me pick up a newspaper.” The strength of the piece lies in its details, and in the sheer fun of exploring so many distinct, if quirky, personalities.

Hamill and Ciappa present a clean, fresh work that knocks down the “fourth wall” present in most theater. The audience is brought into the cramped radio station to experience the joy and frustration of an old, forgotten star who still loves his (possibly imaginary) world. Going through their many manifestations, changing shirts and wigs before the audience, Hamill and Ciappa never presume to be anything more than actors exploring different roles. Yet they still manage to transform themselves and their few props into a small universe that somehow seems familiar. And one of the delights of the show is that it’s never clear–and surprisingly not important–whether the characters played by Bashaw/Ciappa exist independently of Bashaw. It’s enough to take Ciappa’s subtle hints and imagine, as a radio audience would.

Hamill performs well, delivering Broderick’s folksy quips and well-worn routines with a studied flair. But Ciappa is the standout. With his chameleonlike skill at imitation, Ciappa is reminiscent of Lon Chaney Sr., the man of a thousand faces. And one of his transformations is positively eerie: he’s portraying Broderick’s son Tom, calling from a Los Angeles hotel room with his girlfriend, Daisy. Tom, sporting a baseball cap and bright, eager eyes, wants Broderick to talk with Daisy. Broderick agrees, and Tom replies, “OK, let me get a wig.” Tom then removes his baseball cap and replaces it with a curly, dirty blond wig. He shifts his weight, giving his body a more sinuous curve, and drops his voice to suggest a husky rasp: and when Daisy says hello, Tom vanishes into thin air.

This is theater of suggestion at its best, from a new team I hope to see collaborate again.