by Cory Conley · December 20, 2013
Playwrights on New Plays #25: Cory Conley visits Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Gardens on Staten Island to attend It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
It's hard to imagine a better setting for a New York City production of "It's a Wonderful Life" than the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, where Harbor Lights Theater has opened its magnificent radio version of the holiday classic. To walk past the center's imposing Greek Revival buildings, down a gravel road, and into the theater itself, a converted church, is to be transported to a picturesque wintry world. And after all, isn't Staten Island the closest thing we have to a small town?There are plenty of other reasons, though, to make the trek to this urban Bedford Falls, rather than snuggling up to Jimmy Stewart's version from the comfort of your couch on Christmas Eve. Namely: the cozy studio set, the pitch-perfect cast, and the palpable good cheer all around. (Not to mention the mulled wine served spicy at intermission.) And of course, it has the benefit of all theater: it happens right in front of you.
It's a Wonderful Life, of course, tells the tale of George Bailey, a depression-era banker with a blessed life who nonetheless finds himself in a suicidal state on the night before Christmas. Alerted by this, the heavens dispatch Clarence, a novice angel, to confront him with the consequences of his potential choice. As we see George's life history unfold, we realize (as does he) that the world is immeasurably better because he's alive.
But here, you're not simply watching events unfold. It's a radio play, and you're the audience. There's an "applause" sign, old-fashioned microphones, a sound effects man, and folks decked in their best late-40's garb. As adapted by Joe Landry, each of the radio actors has his or her own character name, and most perform multiple roles in the play-within-the-play. There are commercial breaks, too; Landry's reconstructions of old-school radio advertisements have immense charm.
The show is solidly anchored by Martin Landry as George. At first, his performance registers as a respectable Stewart imitation (the accent is unmistakable) but it quickly gains a potency of its own. He's matched by David Sitler as the radio announcer (and several other characters), and K.C. Lieber, as George's wife Mary. But the evening is stolen, in spectacular fashion, by Trent Armand Kendall, who glides through his many roles with an energy and range that is breathtaking.
It's a Wonderful Life is ultimately a simplistic fable, perhaps even more than Charles Dickens' perennial account of Ebenezer Scrooge. But these talented artists (led by director Stephen Nachamie) have invited us to see it with fresh eyes and open ears. Bedford Falls may be a long way from New York City, but its spirit is very much here.