Summer has traditionally been a time for light drama — after all, who wants Hamletmachine with their mint juleps? — and the Overtime’s The Last Broadcast of Bailey and Long more than fits the bill: It’s an amiable valentine to the clever radio plays of yesteryear, and generally performed with panache. As penned by Overtime’s Executive Director Christie Beckham in her full-length playwriting debut, The Last Broadcast works better, however, as heartfelt homage to stylization than as a drama in its own right: Indeed, its play-within-a-play structure glances at such pieces as Frayn’s Noises Off and Gelbart’s City of Angels, but lacks those works’ richer characterizations. Thus Bailey and Long — while 75 minutes in length — seems (curiously) less Long than short.
That’s a shame, because The Last Broadcast’s play-within-a-play — The Adventures of Bailey and Long — is a cleverly constructed facsimile of postwar Burns and Allen broadcasts, stuffed with rat-a-tat-tat repartee and increasingly farcical cliffhangers. The success of Adventures is transparently due to Carole Bailey, a scrappy radio writer partnered with crooner Jack Long; as the duo’s alter egos carom from crisis to crisis, it’s obvious that Beckham possesses a real ear for the possibilities of aural mayhem. But Long, alas, is not long for Chicago’s Radioland — the siren call (and lucre) of Hollywood is simply too tempting to resist. So Bailey’s last Adventures implicitly comments on the couple’s tempestuous off-the-air relationship even as the series — and the era that spawned it — draws to a close.
The broadcast itself has everything you could want in an old-time radio show, including hokey advertising jingles delivered by a bevy of local gals (good work from Morgan Scharff, Heather Manly, and Sara Metting) and a velvety voiced, if somewhat bland, narrator, Tom Jenkins (Rob Barron). (You would think a character who shares his name with a certain Current theater critic might exhibit a bit of coruscating wit. Perhaps, however, I should be thankful that Tom Jenkins doesn’t eat babies and cackle maniacally.) Two stagehands — played by Matthew Arch and Carnie Gillespie — produce the Foley sound effects, while Dave Stone-Robb chews up the microphone as the protean comedian Dick Murphy. (His impersonation of a daffy priest is politically incorrect in all the right ways.)
The structural problem with The Last Broadcast is that there isn’t enough back story to make Bailey and Long’s relationship particularly compelling. All we get is some flimsy exposition and a glimpse at a love triangle — and then we’re on the air, when we should be on tenterhooks. Moreover, the non-original elements of the Broadcast, such as the interpolated standards by Cole Porter and Sammy Fain, pretty much kill the narrative momentum: Devin Collins (as Long) sings sweetly, but his solos feel like filler rather than contributing organically to the plot. (A duet with Bailey, for instance, would allow for some real irony.) So when the broadcast ends, Beckham is stuck. She first attempts to end the play with a melancholy touch, but finally cheats with a tacked-on ending that feels both forced and false.
I tremble to write this — lest I inadvertently provide encouragement to other, less talented San Antonio writers — but The Last Broadcast could profitably be expanded into a two-act play. Or, conversely, it could be streamlined into just the radio play. As is, it’s neither fish nor fowl: It’s obviously more than “just” a radio broadcast, but less than a fully realized examination of romance and the glass ceiling in the waning days of radio. For the record, Beckham herself — as Bailey — is never less than watchable, especially with her tart wisecracks and ’40s coiffure. At the helm, Bill Twistopher apparently replaces Chris Champlin as director.
It’s striking that the Overtime, still something of an upstart in the San Antonio community, is producing far more new work than its established neighbor, the Jump-Start Performance Company, and it should be applauded for presenting extended runs rather than the Jump-Start’s blink-and-you-miss-them nights of original programming. But no company — not even in Chicago or New York — can churn out a new play every month and thrive financially or artistically. It’s too exhausting for everybody, audiences included. The Overtime should look instead to such companies as D.C.’s innovative Woolly Mammoth, whose schedule includes a mix of about a half-dozen premieres and some smaller workshops, designed to ease the transition from page to stage. I’ve the feeling that The Last Broadcast, in particular, would have benefitted from some superior production values and a more leisurely gestation period. That’s the way to make local art long (and Long) for this world. •
The Last Broadcast of Bailey and Long
Through Aug 14