Some things just never change. Back in 1938 murder, revenge, broken hearts, and secret romances were as much the stuff of entertainment as they are now—only then families huddled around the radio instead of the TV to find out who would live, who would die, and who was in love with the wrong person. Radio dramas ruled the airwaves, and in Depression-era Cleveland, the most popular show of this genre is the Ashlan Radio Network (WARN) crime drama, "Gangland."
But in best showbiz fashion, there's more drama going on behind the scenes than on the air. "Gangland" is written by Oswald Keene (the affable John Schaffer), a schlumpy but good-hearted guy who's eager to pen a script that will "make a difference." Oswald loves Jenny (understudy Staci Lawrence), the spoiled, minimally talented daughter of arrogant station owner John Ashlan (James Chalke, sounding like a bad Cary Grant impersonator). Jenny is doted on by William (sturdy Matthew John Taylor), who plays Rex Dasher, the square-jawed, straight-talking, clean-cut hero of Gangland. William is also doing the horizontal hokey-pokey with Catherine (a saucy Kris Edlund), who plays his pure-hearted, on-air heartthrob. But Catherine's husband (Dave Michie), who voices a number of bad-guy roles on the show, has been two-timing his wife, thus motivating Catherine's desire for revenge via William.
If this doesn't offer enough plot twists for you, be assured that there are plenty more involving Ashlan, "Gangland" director Duke Evans (understudy Cybele O'Brien), soundman Stanley Paulsen (the thoroughly enjoyable Scott Vinci), and actor Harry Morgan (James Giordano, who needs to work on playing drunk), but space and available adjectives prevent me from listing them all here.
Just a glimpse at the title, though, should be enough to tell you how all this intrigue ends. What's surprising is the manner in which those endings arrive. Bryan Carrigan's playful script captures the spirit and voice of the era, both within and outside of Gangland episodes, and director Elena St. John follows suit. The uncredited black/white/gray studio scenic design is simple and low-key Deco-ish. Costumes are likewise uncredited, and, since they seem mostly to have come from the actors' closets, they settle for indicating, rather than actually hitting, the period (and, except for the seamless pantyhose and visible designer labels, do so with a fair amount of success).
The 1938 Gangland Radio Killings certainly hearkens back to a time when entertainment was more interactive—audiences had to engage their imaginations a lot more than they do now.
"The 1938 Gangland Radio Killings," presented by the Sidewalk Theatre Company at the Sidewalk Studio, 4150 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sept. 21-Oct. 27. $12. (818) 846-3403.