Appleseed takes to the airwaves with its Old-Time Christmas Radio Hour
Vaudeville comic Jimmy Durante used to howl, “Everybody wants to get into the act!” When that act is produced by the Appleseed Productions’ steering committee, just about everybody does get some moments on the boards.
Rewritten each time it appears, The Old- Time Christmas Radio House was launched in 1994 by Appleseed’s first artistic director, C.J. Young, and popped up for several years in the 1990s before disappearing for at least a decade. Under new artistic director Mark Allen Holt, who appears briefly under a blonde wig and speaking in falsetto, it is back at Appleseed’s stomping grounds, the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. This version allows time for 16 players, who capriciously are not identified with roles in the program. For most of the two hours it feels like an open-mike night.
Radio Hour purports to be a satire of small-town life as displayed on fictional radio station WHRT, in Redwing, somewhere in upstate, maybe even Central New York. Program notes trace narrative characters to Ithaca poet Kathryn Howd Machan, whose works were never published in a single volume. Machan, born in 1952, appears to have flourished about 20 years ago, and so there’s some ambiguity about what’s implied by “old time,” especially as players appear in contemporary costumes. There are no bouffant hairdos or leisure suits. There is no attempt to mimic Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, but there are some cross-overs with the Greater Tuna franchise, minus the bigotry.
If action was set in, say, 1959, that would be one thing, but jokes about Bernie Madoff and Turning Stone Casino are contemporary. No one seems to have noticed that the color from semiprofessional small-town radio has been largely stamped out by predators like Clear Channel. They fire the locals (such as Syracuse’s Jim Reith) and replace them with syndicated right-wing squawkers, like Rush and Hannity, who come cheap but still attract advertisers.
Secondly, despite the disdain Gothamites feel toward upstate (not funny!), we lack a tradition of bumpkin humor, perhaps because we’re a blue state. Attempts by local broadcaster Dick Perry to find comedy in Otisco (“oh-tisk-er”) Valley 30 years ago did not gain traction. Follow many country roads and you find sophistication, like organic farmers, vintners competing in international markets or the prize-winning pancake flour from New Hope Mills.
Most of the bits could happen anywhere, such as the comic dialogue between the high-falutin’ sophisticate Gladys Fenner (Anne Fitzgerald), returned from France with her lapdog Macy, and stay-at-home mom Phidalia Gagnon (Cathy Greer-English), who has given birth to 19 children. It’s like a scene from a Sinclair Lewis novel, only with barbed and sometimes naughty comments. When Philadia implies that Gladys might be too ingratiating to suitors, Gladys replies, “I might be open for business, but with all those kids you’re a 24-hour Wal-Mart.”
One local gag doesn’t bother with the us vs. them of country and city. An ongoing advertisement, mellifluously read by Donnie Williams, is for Onondaga Gold, not a controlled substance but rather a mineral water siphoned off the edge of Onondaga Lake, “which should be discontinued if a rash develops.”
Ed Mastin, who co-wrote the show with Tracy Martin, serves as a master of ceremonies. “Mr. Ed” is sometimes interrupted by a bumptious assistant, Lois Haas, who is hard on him while in character. As she is also Radio Hour’s director, she seems to have been an easy task-mistress elsewhere. Her guidance is somewhere between lackadaisical and invisible. Too many numbers, both musical and spoken, feel weakly rehearsed and pacing is ragged. A telling moment came in Bernie Kaplan’s recitation of Francis P. Church’s 1897 editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” to tiny Althea Simmons (both doing well), when something heavy crashed backstage. Those in the audience buzzed back and forth, “Was that supposed to happen?,” followed by successive yeses and nos.
In the show’s single best passage, two costumed elves in Santa’s workshop, named Bud and Lou (Tom Minion and Mastin), argue about the names of their fellow workers. It’s a shameless adaptation of the immortal “Who’s on First?” routine by Abbott and Costello, but it came across as zippy and flawless, an uncommon experience in The Old-Time Christmas Radio Hour.
This production runs through Saturday, Dec. 17. See Times Table for information.