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Theatre 40's 'New Year's' Re-Creates the Feel of '44


"New Year's 1944!" treats the patrons at Theatre 40 as a radio studio audience watching a live broadcast of a variety show hitting the airwaves the last two hours of Dec. 31, 1943.

Anyone lucky enough to have sat in a studio audience during the golden age of radio (this reviewer attended Jack Benny's Sunday radio show at Sunset and Gower several times in the late '40s) will instantly recognize the accurate detail: the audience warm-up, the dramatic countdown to the sign over the sound booth that flashes "On the Air," the mikes stationed around the stage, the actors with scripts in hand, the "applause" and "laugh" cards, the sound man at the back of the stage with his table of sound effects props and, not least of all, those great old commercials.

It's all here in scenic designer Nancy Dunn Eisenman's Art Deco studio--the style, the tone, the quaint look of radio days. The seven cast members, who perform several different roles and voices, convey just enough earnestness to keep the show from being campy.

So far so good. Unfortunately, what's missing is a playable script to hold your attention. Gradually, as the hands on the studio clock over the director's booth move from 10 to midnight and New Year's, the lack of a compelling text makes you fidget. And that narrative void, after the initial fun wears off, absolutely deadens the production.

The play, written by Theatre 40 artistic director Keith Fowler (who co-directed with Pamela Livingstone), attempts too much. By bombarding you with the flavor of practically all old-time radio entertainment--drama, tears, action-adventure serials, comedy sketches, hit songs of the time, news bulletins from the battlefront, audience participation--it becomes a smorgasbord of corn.

Old-time radio looked like this, but it was seldom this hammy.

At one point (not scripted), actor Neil Elliot tripped over a microphone cord, sending the head of the mike crashing to the floor. Instead of adjusting to the mishap with wit and ingenuity, the cast sang and talked into a headless mike, which really looked dumb.

It's not that you expect to hear and see the likes of Fred Allen or Captain Midnight, but Fowler's sketches, such as a relentless, horrendous, thickly accented Nazi spoof and a Bud Abbott/Lou Costello "Who's on first" ripoff, are withering and endless instead of funny.

Some of the performers are genuinely in period, notably Gavin Glennon's all-American soldier boy, Susan Glaze's demure songstress, and Paul J. Read's cheerful, tuxedoed host. But since none of the characters have a life outside their radio parts, the play has to stand on style and it's not enough.

Woody Allen's movie "Radio Days," for instance, balanced the spell of old radio against families deeply affected by it. What this show lacks is a sense of a world outside the studio. When that world does briefly intrude in a closing wordless moment dramatizing the arrival of a dreaded telegram to a cast member (Deborah Packer in a Frances Langford/Martha Raye mode), we are supposed to suddenly feel the anguish of a mother who has lost her son in battle. It's a touch of real drama, but it's dumbfounding in this context.

Anyway, as the old clock on the wall strikes 12, the strains of "Mairzy Doats" and "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" give way to "Auld Lang Syne." Happy 1944. And that's the way it was--sort of.

"New Year's 1944!," Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, Fridays - Sundays, 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 5. $14-$17; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours.

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