The year is 1941 and weekly radio suspense detective narratives have their listeners hooked. Written in classic style with schlocky, self-aware flair, Tanya O’Debra’s Radio Star is a thrilling throwback that lets modern audiences see a one-woman radio show.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Though Tanya O’Debra merely sits on a barstool placed center stage, she winningly brings all the characters of this riotous, original show to life. Radio Star is a playful spoof on classic radio-drama noirs, so her fun-loving and colorful performance complements the witty and fast-paced script, glamorizing and dramatizing the genre without taking it too seriously. O’Debra slips in and out of characters with deftness and ease, playing all the characters with equal accuracy and devotion, creating voices, vocabularies, and overall oddities for each of them, bringing a contagious energy to each role.
The plot follows the basic hard-boiled detective formula: a woman hires a private eye to find her husband’s murderer. While this premise never sways from boilerplate predictability, O’Debra’s knack for comedic writing and timing keeps audiences entertained. Littering the script with period slang like kitten, angel, and doll, O’Debra also pushes the envelope with offbeat analogies and puns. When the story’s hero, Detective McKittrick, meets his client Fanny LaRue for the first time, he tells her “You have the face of an angel. Or an exotic prostitute.” Later on, after McKittrick comes up short from a dead-end tip, he laments that the informer “was about as useful as a fishnet condom.” With each character, she makes full use of the sharp, fearless writing, resulting in a candid, eye-catching performance.
The entire production is set up to be a radio recording, and O’Debra does nothing to hide this. She reads the script from a music stand in front of her, but not because she needs it; the stand helps set the ambience of a 1940s radio studio, and validates O’Debra’s radio star status. She keeps her focus on the script instead of the audience, and captivates the entire house from the first line. This sheer involvement in her own narrative makes her a true radio star and master storyteller, who knows both comedy and acting, and performs it all on her terms and in her words.
This is not a live tape recording or otherwise listless staged reading of a script, but a vivid reenactment of a thrilling detective story brought to life through a classic, pre-television form of entertainment that many modern audiences have never had the privilege of witnessing. There is no awkward hesitation when turning a page or switching characters, and she does a great job of projecting past the music stand, even when talking out of the side of her mouth as Lucifer, an oozing, Igor-esque manservant, or lowering her voice to a suspicious whisper as McKittrick tries to put all his clues together. A plugged nose gives away a prudish, cautious secretary character, for example, and whenever anyone smokes they receive a full-body miming of the action, including a bent inward elbow, puckered lips, and an extension of the index and forefinger.
In addition to O’Debra’s stunning array of offbeat characters, physical idiosyncracies, and corresponding voices, there’s also a Foley artist, J. Lincoln Hallowell, Jr. Among his many prop-based sound effects are a wooden box to simulate an opening or closing door, scrap cardstock which he rips every time a character strikes a match to light a cigarette (they only smoke Iron Lung, the radio show’s corporate sponsor), and has a pair of tap shoes which he clicks in heel-toe syncopation as our hero walks his beat or heads home, or provides a lighter tread as LaRue enters and leaves McKittrick’s office. Also adding to the noir affect is an original score by Andrew Mauriello, a perfect final appeal to our auditory senses. A blearing, smoky saxophone helps set up a scene on a rain-soaked street, for example, or a soft brush against cymbals create a subtle fadeout as McKittrick calls it a night and heads home. With its innovative concept and visual, descriptive script, Radio Star is a goofy take on the classic detective tale, brimming with vulgar tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters.
Radio Star (one hour; no intermission)
The Red Room (85 East Fourth Street)
Tickets(www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444): $15; Students and Seniors $12
Performances (through 2/20): 2/13 @ 8pm; 2/18-2/20 @ 8pm
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.