Econo-Art Theatre Company

This new play by Gunnar Branson and Marc Silvia has a lot going for it–a warmhearted and detailed script about a 1940 radio broadcast (much like The 1940’s Radio Hour), a sharp and energetic ten-member cast, and the right screwball pacing to make it work.

Unfortunately, The Radio Play throws it all away with a heavy-handed and clumsily set up surprise ending. With far too much surprise to preserve plausibility. Instead of cleaning up the crises and loose ends, the sudden twist opens up a can of questions that retroactively flattens a damn fun play. There she blows!

But, as the serials used to say, to begin at the beginning: we’re in a shoestring Chicago radio station–WKLD–which broadcasts from the basement of a tire factory (which the actual building we’re in used to be). The occasion is the 100th broadcast of the station’s controversial hit show, It Could Happen If . . ., a show that will reunite Broadway star Lilly Vador (Lynn Baber), a WKLD veteran, with her estranged husband, the irascible station owner and broadcast director Oliver Notting (Marc Silvia).

The studio audience (us) is let in early enough to catch the last-minute chaos preceding a live broadcast: Lilly is late, the new girl didn’t know she had to memorize her script, and Oliver is trying to boost the station’s transmission power, something the FCC has repeatedly warned him against. (Oliver, it suspiciously seems, is desperate to get this broadcast–to him a warning to America of a fascist takeover–to as big an audience as possible.) Oliver is also unduly jealous of his alienated wife’s connection with handsome Rick (Gunnar Branson), the serial’s deep-voiced hero.

The studio settles down as ebullient hostess Fran Kaplan (Ileen Getz) instructs the studio audience on how and when to applaud (though, as usual, never why). Arthur Morrison (Michael Kaplan), the unctuously optimistic announcer (an early Don Pardo), launches the broadcast. It’s a Chicago-based episode called “Battlezone, USA”–sponsored by Grandma Brand marshmallows (“When you find yourself in a pinch / Grandmaw marshmallows, it’s a cinch!” goes the awful jingle) and turns out to be a hilarious duplication of old-time World War II propaganda. It comes complete with wickedly timed sound effects by sound man Sandy (Paul Myers)–a dedicated artist who, to imitate a body falling, will gladly hurl himself to the floor–repeatedly.

Punctured by awkwardly segued commercial breaks and buttressed by breathless, film noirish overacting by the WKLD Players, the story concerns Smith Watson, a hard-boiled (“Put an egg in your shoe and beat it!”) detective (Branson) employed by General Carl Damen (Silvia), a Huey Long-like potential demagogue, to spy on Mortissa, the general’s even more hard-boiled wife (a throbbing and throaty Baber). Smith follows Mortissa to her favorite hangout, the Green Mill Lounge. There, after the obligatory initial sparring, the dick and the dame develop an affinity (the sound man smooches his hand). Together Mortissa and Smith catch on to the general’s dirty plan: to trigger a Canada-based Nazi invasion by a huge armada that will sail into Belmont Harbor–and, well, “We’ll all be speaking German in two weeks!”

In the middle of the broadcast, the FCC, fed up with WKLD, somehow knocks the station off the air. But the plucky cast decide–at Oliver’s frantic insistence–to tape the show for future broadcast. Just as “Battlezone, USA” reaches its exciting conclusion, Fran blows a line reading. On this slim pretext, Oliver improbably explodes in raw violence–and, well, let’s just say the studio situation suddenly mirrors the episode itself and the radio troupe turns into a sort of early World War II resistance unit fighting a now truly fascist Oliver.

Again, the Pagliacci-like switcheroo not only doesn’t add up, it subtracts like crazy. But before it self-destructs (mainly because Oliver’s secret scenario just doesn’t hold water), there was a lot–perhaps enough–to savor in Econo-Art’s very ensemble staging by Barbara Reeder and coauthor Silvia. The versatile Silvia’s radio studio set has the right battered, lived-in look. Gloria Pastel’s costumes and hairstyles are period perfect. There’s a tight, friendly, lived-in feel to the acting as well, particularly Baber’s gracious leading lady, Branson’s gallant good guy, Kaplan’s unflappably smiling announcer, and the easy way Getz warms up and works with the live audience. Econo-Art has always shown team effort, and their byplay here has a seamless smooothness that’s just their style. So, if you sit in the back and quietly slip out around 9:45, you can miss the ending and enjoy the play.