Turn the Dial

Enthusiastic but undercooked, this radio-esque Life isn't as wonderful as it could be

Perhaps it's because I'm not a native of this country, but I'll never understand why It's a Wonderful Life has become such a Christmas television staple. There's no denying that Everyman George Bailey's journey of self-discovery has its mawkish side. Hearing the brat Zuzu lisp, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings" is enough to send even the most ardent viewer of yuletide specials to the kitchen for a glass of mulled wine. But though the film was initially released — and partly takes place — in late December, features a guardian angel, and espouses good Christian values such as self-sacrifice and community-mindedness, It's a Wonderful Life isn't very festive at all.

Although the movie ends on a high note, 120 of its 130 minutes are packed with tension and gloom. Suicidal, depressed, and barely 35 when we first meet him, bank manager Bailey has, up to that point, led a stressful life. His overblown dreams of traveling the world, going to college, and "lassoing the moon" deflate not long after the opening credits, as Bailey finds himself trapped by the duties and cares of daily existence in a one-horse town, watching glumly as his peers go on to lead glamorous lives abroad. Every day brings a new battle. As the kindhearted custodian of the financial interests of hundreds of low-income Bedford Falls residents, Bailey fights an endless war with the local despot, Mr. Potter — a fat old money-grabber who'll stop at nothing to see Bailey ruined and the town fall under his control. Driven to despair following the accidental loss of $8,000 from his bank's coffers, Bailey comes to believe what the ruthless Potter tells him: that he's worth more dead than alive.

Viewers have always seen the film as syrupy (writing in 1946 in response to the movie's release, The New York Times' Bosley Crowther saw its chief weakness as "the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life"). But even from the start, the dark side of It's a Wonderful Life made itself felt. When the film first opened, it wasn't a box office hit; many critics thought it too downbeat for the holiday season. And in 1947, an FBI memo went so far as to suggest that the picture might be subversive and pro-Communist because of its negative view of capitalism and its triumphant portrayal of the common man.

Life and Death: Fancy costumes and charismatic voices can't save this live "radio play."
Karine Versace
Life and Death: Fancy costumes and charismatic voices can't save this live "radio play."

Now, as NBC revs up for its seasonal double-airing of the movie (on Dec. 16 and 24) and the film celebrates its 60th anniversary, there's no better time to reclaim Frank Capra's classic from the Christmas slush pile. One method might be to throw the potatoes off the couch and get them to the theater.

Since premiering in 1996, Joe Landry's "live radio play" adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life has become popular among theater companies around the country. A cursory Internet search revealed more than 10 productions in cities as widespread as Memphis and Seattle this season alone. But if Actors Theatre's enthusiastic though undercooked staging of Landry's version is anything to go by, the 1940s-style wireless take on the film doesn't breathe new life into Capra's Life. Even as filtered through two other media — radio and theater — the work remains as predictably tepid as a door-to-door rendition of "Silent Night."

Radio makes the most of the cozy atmosphere of Capra's tale. Telling the story through sound alone brings forth nostalgic visions of families clustered around the wireless. It also evokes the era in which the film was conceived. In keeping with this tone, the play features a couple of endearing conceits, based on the idea that viewers become members of a live studio audience — Bailey's story is book-ended by perky announcements from a radio host, and a stage manager holds up an "applause" banner every now and again. The actors even perform advertisements from the show's sponsors (the makers of the rather unappetizing-sounding "Lux Toilet Cake" and "Kremel Hair Tonic"). In these moments, the cast gathers around the microphone and hits each word of the 1940s promotion with corny aplomb.

If only the rest of the broadcast had the same zing. This Life isn't as wonderful as it could be because the actors — eyes glued to their scripts — seem to forget that Landry's work is a stage play, too. Many of the performers have charismatic voices (a few, such as Matt Dwyer and Jake Laurents, fashion distinct timbres for several different characters, sometimes within the same scene). They certainly look the parts, in their hairnets and high-waist pants. Yet the show lacks theatricality.

Radio broadcasts lend themselves to a range of colorful sound effects. It's entertaining watching Malinda Hackett as the stage manager grabbing at whistles, telephones, and wine bottles, sloshing her arms about in a bucket of water, and jumping up and down to open and close a door, all in an attempt to create a soundscape. But director Kenneth Vandenburg doesn't exploit the sonic potential as much as he could. Some of the sounds, such as the door and the telephone, are overused and become repetitive. I found myself yearning for more creativity — perhaps the sound of Bailey slamming a taxi door or his feet pounding the sidewalk when he finds out that his customers might lose all their hard-earned savings; perhaps the sound of beating wings as a new angel takes off. Even a few extra musical interludes would have helped fill the stultifying periods of dead air.

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