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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A play set in a 1940s radio station in Chicago—now, how much opportunity for fun is that?

Playwright Tony Padilla is directing the world premiere of his The Thespian Radio Hour at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, on behalf of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Padilla has been lauded for his plays, receiving the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Writing and the Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for his impact on local theater—and he’s received international recognition as well.

The writing here is solid. Padilla uses the stereotypes of early radio personalities to make his case. Linda Cooke, for example, plays crusty producer Agnes Cohen, who fusses and worries about everything, endlessly bossing everyone around. Her sidekick, the youthful Steve Randy, played by Nick Wass, is the unappreciated kid who directs the actors and narrates the broadcast and writes the scripts and commercials (while trying to date every girl in the cast) … because that’s how it was done back then. Larry Dyekman is Hamilton Sterling, the suavely aging debonair matinee idol, complete with ascot. Bonnie Gilgallon (an Independent contributor—my fellow theater reviewer!) is Ellen Haze (not Helen Hayes, as everyone has to find out), a voluptuous but fading femme fatale actress with the greatest legs who is battling the passing of the years, but who has learned bags of showbiz tricks along the way. Kelley Moody is cute and perky newcomer ingénue Lilly Darling—talented, ambitious and untroubled by scruples that might prevent her from forging ahead in her career. Hal O’Connell very believably plays a serious businessman, Waldo Burns, whom we don’t meet until the second act—but he is the great hope of the rest of the cast, as he is considering sponsorship of the show which would save all their jobs (and sponsorship is still a huge concern in radio even today). 

While the writing in this world premiere play is indeed solid, Padilla missed a great opportunity for comedy through revealing these radio actors’ real names. Some can be terribly funny. Perhaps the best example ever was author Paul Gallico’s character, a wannabe actress called Pamela Penrose, but whose mail still came addressed to “Enid Snite” (say it out loud). It’s no secret that most of our old movie stars changed their names to WASP pseudonyms. We all know that Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz, Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch, John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and so on. Plus, in the world of radio, it was (and sometimes still is) customary for announcers to use “air names” rather than their real names, so they could change monickers when they changed jobs.

Just a thought—because we need more from this cast. The characters need to be more vain, self-obsessed, selfish and ruthless if they are to excite our horror at the way they all try to seduce their possible sponsor. But here, we got the feeling that this was business as usual, ho hum. There was a lack of depth in these portrayals—which is too bad, as this new play is rife with possibilities.  Maybe the cast needs to research some old ’40s movies like the “film noir” ones that gave us such unforgettable performances (think Bogie/Bacall). They need more and brighter colors in their palettes. Because now, the play’s only real surprise comes from something that happens to Gilgallon’s character. Well, that and Waldo’s little secret …

Another thought: Back then in radio, a professional actor’s diction was hugely important. Actors enunciated every word super-flawlessly, even in their real lives. However, in this play, some of this actors’ pronunciations were inconsistent, and occasionally just lazy lipped.

My most serious question about this script is the use of vulgarities which would surely have gotten a radio station turfed off the air back then. To call someone an “old bastard” on the air would have brought the screaming censors running … and to say into a microphone that someone was “talking out of your ass”—besides it being an anachronism—would have shut down the station immediately. WC Fields once got a radio station permanently closed for saying something like that. (Don’t ask.)

Other concerns: Could a woman really have been a producer back then, in what was an almost completely male-dominated field? Also: Why was the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” included? It added nothing to the plot and it interrupted the timing. Moody did it nicely, but, try as we might, we can’t find a reason for its inclusion.

It’s important to note, again, that this show is a premiere—meaning there’s time and room for this brand-new play to be tightened up and improved as it moves forward. There are some clever and delightful comedic touches in this script. For example, the name of the former sponsor of the radio show is SHM, or Still Here Mortuary. Yikes! And the title of the play these actors are performing is The Last Nail in His Coffin, which is perfect melodrama. More, please!

Also, gratitude goes to Tony Padilla for choosing to not having his characters smoke, which apparently EVERYONE did in the mid-1040s … cough, hack, gasp … although with these new e-cigarettes the actors could possibly have strutted the look without suffocating the audience.

So what this play needs more of is what’s called “comedic attitude.” Director Padilla may have to surrender his famously laid-back style and lean hard on his cast to bring out the silliness and fun in them that would enhance playwright Padilla’s script. Right now, they’re taking themselves seriously, when what they need is to find the funny.

This play has so much potential, and I hope the actors can rise to the challenge of doing the work to take it from “amusing” up to maybe even “hilarious” on the comedy scale.

The Thespian Radio Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Angst over the current political climate seems to be leading many people to seek escape in a variety of ways—and live theater is a popular choice. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Expressions is a well-executed play, and it may take your mind off the details of what’s going on in the White House for a while, make no mistake: It’s no light-hearted diversion.

Its themes—post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), alcoholism and family dysfunction—are quite serious, indeed. Written and directed by DETC’s executive director, Shawn Abramowitz, Expressions is a stark and unflinching look at all of those issues.

As the play opens, we meet cousins Paul (Cameron Keys) and Joseph (Nick Wass) as they prepare for a family party to celebrate their graduation from high school. Each young man is contemplating what his next step in life should be. While Paul is thinking about attending community college and a film career, Joseph has decided to join the Army, largely due to his admiration of his Uncle Steven, a Vietnam vet. Steven’s stories of adventure and heroism have convinced young Joseph that a life in the military is the way to go. However, Paul has experienced a much different side of Steven over the years: His father’s alcoholism and emotional neglect have left their scars. Paul is hurt and bitter, and does not view his dad as the war hero Joseph does.

Joseph’s parents, Emily (Kelley Moody) and Karl (Fergus Loughnane), arrive home with supplies for the party. Karl is also a Vietnam veteran, and has a bad case of PTSD. He is emotionally withdrawn, and loud noises send him into a panic. The last thing he would want is for his son to become a soldier and face the horrors of war. He and Emily know their son has applied to several colleges, and feel confident he will be safely ensconced in university life come fall.

When Uncle Steven (James E. Anderson III) shows up, he heads straight for the bar. The tension between the adult brothers is thick: Despite the damage the war did to his soul, Karl has managed to keep his professional and family life together, at least on the surface. Steven, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in a bottle. His wife walked out shortly after he returned from the war, and he has virtually no relationship with Paul.

Steven applauds his nephew’s choice to join the Army, telling him: “America needs you. You’d make a great solder!” He even tags along when Joseph secretly enlists. When the secret comes out during the family celebration, all hell breaks loose. There are several twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t give away here.

The acting is strong across the board. Wass and Keys have great chemistry as the young cousins, and both ably convey the combination of uncertainty and bravado typical of 18-year-old boys.

Moody (also the morning weather anchor at CBS Local 2 News) is compelling as the wife struggling to deal with her husband’s illness (“I love you, but you’ve got to get your shit together!”) and terrified of losing her only son. She has many nice moments onstage with Loughnane, who is terrific, as always. He’s one of the valley’s strongest actors, and seemingly never gives a bad performance. The audience feels his love for his wife, his fears for his son’s safety, and his anger and frustration over what he sees as his brother’s failures.

As the troubled Steven, Anderson is fabulous. The climactic scene in which Steven comes clean to young Joseph about what really happened in Vietnam should be required viewing for every acting student. There is not a single false note.

Kudos to Abramowitz for his directing skills here. He elicits strong, emotional performances from each cast member, and no one ever goes over the top.

Abramowitz wrote Expressions partly as an homage to his own father, a Vietnam vet who lost three fingers in combat. His dad spent 35 years battling with Veterans Affairs to get the treatment he needed. Both father and son agree something that needs to change.

No, this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good play—but it is definitely worth seeing. It will move you, make you squirm, make you think and possibly even make you cry. Isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do?

Expressions, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Ave., in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance