It's hard to tell if the actors in War of the Worlds: The Radio Play are pretending to be radio actors afraid of a Martian invasion of Earth, or if they are real actors fighting boredom. Whatever the case, they're losing either battle.
The mother of all mass media hoaxes, the effects of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre actors' 1938 radio performance of H.G. Wells 1898 sci-fi classic, while sensationalized by the newspapers of the time, certainly showed the power of that mass media. While there was nothing like the widespread panic in the streets of America we commonly associate with the event, there were enough people who believed the entirely fictitious performance that the Federal Communications Commission seriously considered mandating that all radio programming be reviewed by government censors before broadcast.
That isn't what Howard Koch's adaptation is concerned with. Beyond a small part of dialogue that is relayed in hindsight before the radio play, Koch is more concerned with the actual performance and not until the end do Welles and his actors have any hint that their dramatization has been viewed seriously.
It's just as hard to take this production seriously. A lot of that has to do with Koch's script: (this was not an example of the power of imagination, as one actor says before the radio portion of the play begins; it was an example of the propagandic power of mass media. And World War II was still a year away, so to say that people reacted to this because war was raging in Europe is just flat inaccurate).
Amanda DeMaio's direction doesn't help. While beginning the play with an approximately 10-minute March of Time-like flim clip helps provide some context for the time, it goes on far too long and most of the clips do nothing to add to the urgency of the era. Since part of the public's reception to the broadcast had to do with rising fears of war and invasion, the parts about Hitler and European heads of state visiting other countries work, but most of the rest seems unnecessary.
More critical, however, is the lack of urgency among the seven-person cast. Only Matt Tully,who plays Welles, and the under-utilized Cynthia Ryanen seem to want to be on stage. The rest of the cast is either smiling and making small-talk with each other, slouching in the shadows or standing in the back with their hands on their hips. In a small theater, where the viewer's attention is fixed on what's happening on stage, such flaccid background activity can be ignored; but on a big stage like the Brea Curtis Theatre, it's magnified and draws focus.
Regardless of whether Welles and his cast knew they were about to provoke such controversy is debatable; but the talent and commitment that his Mercury Theatre players showed to their material isn't. And that lack of talent and commitment help to make this admittedly harmless show, a crashing bore.
Radio plays are economical to do. Actors can hold scripts. There is no suspension of disbelief needed; we know we're watching a play. But that doesn't mean that they have be insipid and feel like a bunch of people getting together just to put on a play. This one, all too often, feels just like that.
Wells' radio broadcast was a Very Big Deal for the time, and has become part of the American cultural mythos. But you wouldn't know that from this production.
Brea Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Circle Dr., Brea, (714) 990-7222.Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $15-$20. http://www.ci.brea.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=927