Joe Landry's Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play has a four-performance dinner-theatre run at the Millbrook Community Theatre this weekend. Originally conceived to be played by five actors, director Christopher Perry decided to secure a large cast in order to provide opportunities to more local actors to perform on their stage in radio-drama readings of three of Hitchcock's masterful films: Act I includes The Lodger (1927), and Sabotage (1936), while Act II is devoted entirely to The 39 Steps (1935), all of which are set in the United Kingdom.
The stage is set simply with folding chairs and stand-microphones to replicate a 1947 broadcast studio at WBFR-radio in New York. Mr. Perry sits to one side and serves as the Announcer of the readings, while Ginger Collum [and crew] appear opposite him as "foley artists" who supply the live sound effects that support the action of the plays. There are even a few live "commercials" that humorously evoke other Hitchcock films like Psycho and North by Northwest.
A challenge to ensemble actors everywhere, radio plays performed on-stage rely on them and the sound effects to make audiences visualize the action of the drama without movement or a stage-set, costumes, or props; and in the case of Hitchcock, to create the suspense, fears, anxieties, and panic inherent in the scripts. -- And there is a degree of success in the Millbrook production.
Mr. Perry has his actors tell the stories clearly, and notably with Dave Kelsen, replicate an assortment of dialects; but only a few actors even attempt dialect and thereby emphasize the American accents of the rest of the cast. -- And there are a number of instances when Hitchcock's famous droll humor comes across, even in the midst of the dire circumstances of the plots.
The silent film The Lodger tells a kind of "Jack the Ripper" story: in 1888 London, a number of young blonde women have been murdered by "the Avenger" when a mysterious lodger named Mr. Sleuth [John Chain] rents a room from Mr. & Mrs. Bunting [Roger Humber and Renae Perry] whose young blonde daughter Daisy [Shelby Tennimon] might be the next victim. -- Mr. Chain's deliberately slow and odd behavior and voice lend credibility to his being "the Avenger"; though that is not Hitchcock's answer. -- He is not the murderer...but who is?
The trick here is to build suspense via the sound effects, and while Ms. Collum's crew suggest thunder, rain, the sound of a crippled foot being dragged, etc., the effects are often rendered too softly, loudly, or imprecisely to punctuate the story. - Here, as in the other plays on the evening's bill-of-fare, the sound effects ought to become almost another character rather than tentative or occasionally uncontrolled sounds that have not yet been fully integrated into the production.
In Sabotage, a plot is underway to bomb a London bus and terrorize the city, reminding us of a similar instance a few years ago in London, and similar instances around the world today. Carl Verlock [Dave Kelsen], a seemingly benign cinema owner is at the center of the plot. His wife Winnie [Daphine McCormick] begins to suspect him when he is being questioned by undercover investigator Ted Spencer [Tim Brooks] who, by the way, falls in love with her. Aided by a sinister Professor [Al Allenback], the bomb is placed in a film canister that Verlock has Winnie's brother Stevie [Caleb Perry] innocently deliver, with precise instructions as to the time. When Stevie is delayed and the bomb goes off killing him, Winnie takes revenge by stabbing her husband. In a stroke of sardonic humor, Hitchcock allows Winnie to get away with murder. -- The actors in this play are committed to their roles and deliver some convincing portrayals.
The 39 Steps is perhaps the most famous of this trio of plays, recounting the story of a Hitchcock favorite -- an innocent man on the run. Richard Hannay [John Collier] becomes party to the murder of Annabella Smith [Rae Ann Collier] who tells him of a sinister plot against the British government and refers to "the 39 steps", and has to prove his innocence while avoiding the police in London and Scotland in the company of an uncooperative Pamela Stewart [Jubilee Lofgren] who does not believe he is innocent but who is gradually falling in love with him. Everything hinges on figuring out what the reference to "the 39 steps" is; it will come out at the end through the music hall star, Mr. Memory [Roger Humber]. -- The actors again do credit to their roles, and Ms. Lofgren is a new talent to be reckoned with.
Perhaps with another performance under their belts, the sound effects and the actors voices will become a polished unit. Let's hope so, as the stories themselves warrant it, and the dedication of the Millbrook company deserves it too.