Simon comedy gets ‘radio’ treatment

By John Lyle Belden

It’s been a wild year, with social unrest, a wild presidential election, war in Vietnam — yes, it’s 1968. To bring back the flavor of the good ol’ days, “station WCAT” in Carmel is hosting a live radio play of the Neil Simon hit, “Plaza Suite.”

This is the situation presented by Indy Bardfest, which is taking a break from Shakespeare fare to explore more recent celebrated playwrights. The necessity of personal distance for those on the stage, as well as in the audience, in the wacky year of 2020 make the radio drama an excellent format for presenting a character- and dialogue-driven play such as this.

Director Matthew Socey has given the cast of Tony Armstrong, Nan Macy, Afton Shepard, and Matthew Walls, assisted by Tony Johnson as host and sound-effects guy, plenty of opportunities for visual antics to accompany the “theatre of the mind” atmosphere. On-stage social distancing is achieved as each stands apart at their own microphone, even during moments like the creatively unorthodox kissing scenes.

Simon’s ‘68 Broadway smash is three acts, each its own story, all taking place at 3 p.m. on different days in Room 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In the first, an exercise in emotionally-charged dark humor, Karen (Macy) has booked the suite as a surprise anniversary gift in hopes of recharging her lackluster marriage to Sam (Armstrong). But she finds she may be too late, and maybe even in the wrong room. Walls appears as members of hotel staff, and Shepard as Sam’s beautiful secretary.

In the second act, successful young Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (Walls) arranges to meet with his high-school sweetheart, Muriel (Shepard), a working-class New Jersey housewife. He longs for the simplicity of the past, while she is fascinated by his life among the stars. Much humor is derived from the cumulative effect of vodka stingers vs. the delicate dance of seduction. Their exchange is a fun examination of the people we pretend to be, even to ourselves, as Jesse works out how to keep their metaphorical masks in place long enough to get Muriel’s actual dress off.

The third act, arguably the best and most popular, has stressed out parents Roy (Armstrong) and Norma (Macy) struggling to coax daughter Mimsey (Shepard) to unlock the bathroom door so she can make her way downstairs to her wedding. Roy is already fuming at how expensive the ceremony and reception have become, while Norma is a nervous wreck. Slapstick abounds, even with the limited movement in this format. 

This production is wonderfully cast, as all have great range and the ability to convincingly go from serious to silly as the situation demands. Johnson gets surprisingly involved in the action, such as being a sympathetic fourth wall to a character’s asides, adding to the charm of this unusual show. 

Bardfest has one weekend left in the “Plaza Suite,” Friday through Sunday, Oct. 9-11, at The Cat theatre in downtown Carmel. Visit indybardfest.com for info (or see them on Facebook) and thecattheatre.com for tickets.

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

BCP: It’s a wonderful show

By John Lyle Belden

It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, and we’ve gotten in out of the cold to sit in the studio audience at WBFR Radio, New York City. Freddie Fillmore, who is as handsome as he sounds, comes out to greet us commoners, along with fellow stars of the airwaves, Jake Laurents, Sally Applewhite, Lana Sherwood and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood. Sound-effects expert Art Foley teases us with an earful of a common kitchen utensil, challenging us to guess what that sound will represent on air – none of us can!

Soon they settle in on stage, and present a new holiday story, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is the trip to the past delivered by Buck Creek Players, a parallel world where the Frank Capra film is just a rumor, and we get the Christmas legend of George Bailey and Clarence the Angel as a live radio play (adapted by Joe Landry). The cast does work the crowd a little before the show, while stage manager Nicole Droeger, in period costume, helps set things up as a WBFR staffer. There are “APPLAUSE” signs to cue us (though they often weren’t needed) as well as the “ON AIR” light to let us know the show is under way.

Jeff Wilson plays Fillmore, the established star who hosts the event and provides numerous character voices, including complete opposites Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy. Tiffany Wilson is Applewhite, who portrays the major women characters, including George’s wife, Mary. Sami Burr is Sherwood, who does the minor women’s roles. Ben Rockey is Jazzbo, who can’t help providing visual gags when not voicing Clarence, or George’s brother Harry or friend Sam. Christian Condra is up-and-coming star Laurents, tasked with the voice of George himself. And Christopher Brown is Foley, who works with a table of noisemakers a lot like those used in the Golden Age of Radio.

The result is a brilliant rendition of the now-familiar story. If you close your eyes, it’s exactly like the show would have been as a radio drama, or you could even fill in the film visuals with your mind’s eye as only a little was changed, and all major plot points are intact. Of course, if you’re not watching, you don’t get to see the method of Foley’s clever effects, Jazzbo hamming it up, or a bit of shenanigans that happen in the studio, including some sneaking around during intermission.

The cast, under the direction of Cathy Cutshall, are all in fine form. The Wilsons, Burr and Rockey nimbly shift from one distinct character voice to another. Condra delivers an excellent, genuine George Bailey without slipping into a James Stewart impersonation.

It’s worth the trip out to the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through Dec. 17.

Also, this being the BCP holiday show, there is the annual cookie sale during intermission. They accept cash, cards or checks, so pick up a bag or tin of fine baked goods and help support local theatre.

Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270, or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.