at the Roxy

There are two things going on in Waveland Radio Playhouse: On the Air. The first is a series of parodies of 40s radio programs. The second is the off-the-air antics of the three radio performers in their studio. The radio programs themselves are hilarious–sharp-witted sketches in the manner of Firesign Theater’s Nick Danger. The backstage doings, however, go nowhere: although the performers manage some entertaining character work, each remains in his own private world. Fortunately the flow from one humorous program to the next is constant, and within the radio broadcasts the three work together splendidly.

The broadcasts parody a range of styles, from detective shows to children’s features to public-service programming. A radio sponsor–Sudsy Soap, the Clean Soap–runs throughout, complete with its own inane jingle. True to 40s form, most programs are incomplete episodes from much longer adventures, with ongoing he- roes and stories to be continued.

The most involved and lengthy adventure is from a series called Rex Koko, Private Clown; here we get one episode, “Die, Clown, Die,” which is completed over the course of the evening. Our hero, Rex Koko, has all the trappings of Sam Spade, but his business is jokes and his underworld contacts are circus folk, freaks, and critters. The story–which is outrageously complicated, full of strange twists and characters–is ultimately not very important. But the jokes and the scores of peculiar persons are, and they come at you at astounding speeds. In fact the jokes are so fast and furious that, just as in the movie Airplane, it doesn’t matter if some of them are duds–the next joke is on top of you before you know it, and sometimes they’re so funny that you lose the next three because of the laughter.

Another show represents a day in the life of a private citizen: Johnny Deadline, cub reporter. Of course Johnny is so naive and stupid that he can’t sniff out a good story even when he’s been kidnapped by it. After his adventure, Johnny comes on the air to promote Sudsy Soap. This kind of material isn’t inherently funny, and it can seem obvious, even sophomoric. Waveland Radio Playhouse not only makes it work but makes it raucously funny. Part of it is the lightning-speed banter that pervades the show, but part of it stems from the dichotomy between Johnny Deadline’s character and the vice-laden man behind the voice. And let’s face it, there’s just something funny about mature men pretending to be kids or women and getting away with it.

Other characters include the ultraparanoid Mr. Safety, some rough, tough cowboys in Western Adventure, and Daisy the Elephant, Rex Koko’s beloved. (I didn’t get to see Astrodog, one of the more intriguing episodes mentioned in the group’s press release, because On the Air varies in content and length each night depending on what time the show starts.)

We also get to see the personalities of the radio veterans behind the voices, and the split between their lackadaisical attitude and constant vocal gymnastics is one of the pleasures of the show. Jim Garner plays the jaded professional, who keeps up a deadpan, almost bored look as he spews out the voices of all the programs’ heroes. Even as the eager young pup Johnny Deadline, Garner drags deeply on his cigarette betweenlines. Pat Byrnes plays a bundle of energy at the microphone, acting out hundreds of voices. But when he’s off the air, he’s off. He sits blankly in his chair when he’s not working. Jordan Polansky, the sound-effects man, occasionally runs amok with his noises, continuing them for absurd lengths of time until the glaring of the other two brings him back to reality. When Garner and Byrnes leave the studio and Polansky does his one-man public-service spot, Mr. Safety, Polansky begins to take hits off a large wine bottle.

But it’s never clear whether the sound-effects man then gets drunk, or he’s just a goofy kind of guy. And did the other two walk out of the studio because they were fed up, or because they were bored, or just because they were getting some water? There’s no way to know, since the backstage activity never builds to anything. Sometimes it seems that none of these actors has a clue about what the others are doing with their characters.

This problem may stem from the fact that the show originated as short segments on a cable-television show. In these discrete segments, it wouldn’t matter if the behind-the-scenes antics didn’t add up to anything as long as they were funny on their own. But in a longer piece, we keep waiting for something to happen, and it never does.

Happily, that’s only a minor detraction from the show. The bulk of On the Air is the satirical programming, and it really doesn’t matter that the subtext is a bit murky.

Garner, Byrnes, and Polansky perform their own material with sharpness and quick versatility. Polansky is truly amazing with his sound effects–he uses both a realistic-seeming 1940s sound board and assorted body parts–and Byrnes can make a crowd scene come to life all by himself. Garner’s heroes are marvelously quirky, and Garner himself carries off his jaded persona with calm assurance. Ted Kosik on piano deftly sets up the style for each radio sketch. And all of it is performed at a pace that the quick-witted Rosalind Russell would have admired.