Everything old is new again! At least that’s how it feels these days. Five long years ago the vogue in vintage was vintage 70s — 1870s that is. Remember when conservatives wanted to repeal income tax and Social Security? It was the new Gilded Age.
But ah, how quickly the worm turns! Now vintage styles in dress and drink reflect the more sober times of the Great Depression and the privation of WWII. Only we call it the Great Recession, and our great global war is being fought by guys with explosive powder in their banana hammocks.
The Tweens look like they will have a lot in common with the 20s and 30s though. Both ages were wowed by life changing technologies. In a month we’re going to get the Apple iSlate, and soon DVDs will go the way of the buggy whip. In the 20s and 30s folks got electricity in the house and along with it a bunch of spiffy new devices, like a washing machine for your clothes (turn a 12 hour job into a 4 hour job!), an electric iron, and miracle of miracles, the radio — an amazing way to communicate with people thousands of miles away. (Pity the poor sheet music industry that went belly up when people replaced their home entertainment console — the piano — with a swell new radio.)
Tanya O’Debra has synthesized our nostalgia for the Greatest American Age with a clever wink at our current technological obsessions in her nifty new one woman, one act play “Radio Star” at The Red Room on West 4th street.
The Red Room is a tiny black box theater up the stairs from KGB bar. The stage is set with a vintage mic, a bar stool, and a table strewn with some incongruous technical apparatuses. The sound man, J. Lincoln Hallowell, Jr., looking very spiffy in a blazer and bow tie, sits behind the table and operates the tap shoes (to make the “man walking” sfx) and the white Apple Macbook, where the jingles and sounds created by Andrew Mauriello are stored. Ms. O’Debra does the voices for all characters.
As the title of the play implies, the story is secondary, tertiary, or lower in relation to the vibe being created. If you’ve seen The Maltese Falcon you know everything that’s going to happen in “Radio Star”. That’s not a spoiler, it’s the plain truth. The hard boiled private dick is pleasantly surprised by a beautiful client who walks through his door. Her husband has been murdered. Our man takes the case. It turns out she’s in on the racket, and our man barely escapes with the truth and his skin all in one piece. Plot innovations are not a reason to see this play.
Part of Ms. O’Debra’s genius is to blend clichés of hard-boiled, mystery-detective fiction with incongruous, usually technological elements of the present, as, for example, when Detective Nick McKittrick says, “a regular morning at the office for me is unlike what the average Joe deals with at work. You see, Joe hangs his hat and coat, takes a seat at his desk, opens up his typewriter and looks at Facebook all day while pretending to work. Not me.”
In another writer or another genre those touches could be merely cute or precious. Ms. O’Debra deals with the matter masterfully thanks to the other part of her genius: she is a whiz with the hard-boiled noir zinger. Noir / pulp fiction more than any other genre in the American literary tradition is based on clever similes and metaphors. Think of one-line gems like “hot as Georgia asphalt” and “she was sweating like a whore in church.” The fast talking, hard-boiled patter is what makes noir good. Like when Joel Cairo says to Sam Spade “You always have a very smooth explanation,” to which Spade replies, “What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?”
Being retro and living in the age of irony Ms. O’Debra takes it to the proverbial “next level.” One of my favorites in Radio Star is “useful as a fishnet condom.” The image is so striking and apt in its context that I had an LOL moment. The play is littered with them. In truth, they are the golden threads out of which Ms. O’Debra weaves her satisfyingly funny and nostalgic send up. Nick McKittrick makes bad puns so compulsively that other characters have to step in to stop him:
NICK Strangled with a phone cord, eh? Sounds like someone needed to make a call pretty bad. Don’t worry, Mrs. LaRue. I’ll get this creep on the line. Murder is no way to operate. That cat dialed a wrong number. He better get used to calling long distance.
FANNY LARUE Are you through?
NICK One more. When I’m through with him, the only ringing he’ll hear is the sound of keys on the jailer’s belt. His digits–
FANNY LARUE Ahem!
NICK Sorry. Where did you say this crime scene was painted?
And Ms. O’Debra has a special gift for dirty double entendre, as in Detective Nick’s opening speech: “New York City. Hell of a town. One minute you’re on top of the world, smoking Cubans at El Morocco with a doll on each arm, the next minute you’re waking up in a bathtub full of ice and your kidneys have left you for another man. With action like that, there are plenty of places where people want to stick their noses, but they just don’t know how. That’s where I come in. Nick McKittrick. Private Dick. Twenty-five bucks a day, and I’ll stick my nose into anything from the deepest crack to the tightest crevice to sniff out your hidden booty.”
“Radio Star” is great way to spend an hour and $15. Check it out. You’ll laugh, you’ll save hot dough by not seeing a turgid drahma on Broadway, and you will be thoroughly entertained.