Over the last year, an increasing number of enterprising theatre companies have sought to tempt us with online offerings. While all are likely to be worthy, most are the broadcast equivalent of small-scale fringe productions.
Therefore, when a highly professional company like Broadway Podcast Network appears offering a series of radio plays featuring performances by casts that include Broadway and movie stars, you should instantly feel the pulse quickening.
Even better, Radio Play Revival is available on a number of different platforms free of charge, though the payment comes in the form of a series of adverts at the start of each recording.
To date, the company has produced eight broadcasts, each conceived and directed by Josh Johnston on behalf of Groundswell Theatricals, for the most part adaptations of short stories by well-known American authors. They vary in length from around 10 minutes to almost an hour and are all professionally delivered, quite often with evocative soundtracks to enhance the stories.
It is worth starting out of order to highlight the great pleasure of the charming Xingu written by the great novelist Edith Wharton. Harriet Harris is the narrating linchpin in a story cast that also includes Anna Deavere Smith, Michelle Williams, Blair Brown and Eva Marie Saint amongst others. They present a cool social satire centred on what in 1906 was called a lunch club and might now be better recognised as a book group. The rich comedy pokes fun at the intellectual snobbery of a catty and cliquey group after they invite the distinguished author Osric Dane to talk about her magnum opus, The Wings of Death.
The series opened last Christmas Day with an adaptation of The Gift of the Magi by O Henry, a bittersweet but witty tale of Yuletide in New York City long ago, performed by a cast led by Samuel L Jackson and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, narrated by Boyd Gaines, is equally bittersweet but only contains the very blackest strands of comedy. Set during the American Civil War, it follows the adventures of a Confederate farmer who, having been caught by soldiers from the Union, is on the verge of having his head put into a noose.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman takes place in the mind of Jessica Chastain’s sensitive and possibly neurotic young wife. She is haunted by the yellow wallpaper in a holiday home, much to the frustration of physician husband John, played by Michael Urie.
Mark Twain’s The Californian’s Tale plays out in the wild West, long after the goldrush has dissipated. Left behind are a few failed prospectors, one entrancing wife, her hopeful husband John Benjamin Hickey as Henry with Steven McKinley Henderson taking the pivotal role of The Narrator.
John Patrick Shanley is graced by a double bill of 10-minute plays, The Red Coat and Let Us Go Out into the Starry Night. The former is a coming-of-age love story. This is followed by a tale of two lonely misfits meeting in a restaurant.
While watching countless movies about happy Americans partying a century ago, it is often easy to forget that the jazz age was also the time when John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Titee by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson is a sweet tale about a jazz age ragamuffin with a good heart.
The most recent upload, Bachelor Holiday by Alan Ball, is a contemporary play that feels autobiographical. It attempts to make a dull trio of hungover, apartment-sharing New York men in their 20s exciting. This is the kind of work that will probably only appeal to a very specific audience i.e. dull New York men in their 20s.
Even allowing for the very occasional dud, Radio Play Revival is several cuts above the average podcast and should give anyone with a few minutes to spare great pleasure.