The “terrifying broadcast that panicked a nation!” the night before Halloween more than 70 years ago and sent thousands heading for the hills can now be not only heard, but seen. Scena Theatre has taken the Orson Welles Mercury Theater’s (almost literally) groundbreaking “The War of the Worlds,” based on the eponymous 1898 book by the (almost eponymous; the two would joke about it later on the former’s radio show) H.G Wells — and done what might be called a reverse Welles.
Welles, the onetime wunderkind, brought the stage to radio with masterful and still-riveting broadcasts of plays that made his name a household word at the frighteningly young age of 23. With “War of the Worlds,” his fame, or better yet, notoriety, would spread worldwide. And the world would learn an important lesson — one which, as with most such lessons, would be either largely forgotten or gainfully misused in the years to come.
Scena’s production touches only tangentially on this phenomenon, content to recreate the hectic, harried, but good-humored and bantering creativity on the soundstage behind the scenes. The spareness of Scena’s H Street Playhouse set works well here, the pumpkin-colored wall and red curtain backdrop of Michael C. Stepowany’s set forming a Halloween-ish accompaniment to the essentially black, white and gray monotony of the all-male cast’s 30s-era garb, somewhat leavened by patterned suspenders. And the business onstage never veers outside the parameters of the original script.
But Artistic Director Robert McNamara has not abandoned either commentary or contemporaneity, weaving them into the stage play in the form of listeners in period dress. Seated throughout the audience, the seven members of the aptly named “Chorus” pop up from time to time, initiating or responding, individually or in unison — a tearful, fearful duet of “Nearer My God to Thee” by two previously frivolous sorority sisters (Elizabeth Jernigan and Kathryn Cocroft) is especially effective — to interrupt the proceedings onstage with asides to the rest of us. A couple of these glide across the time barrier, catching us unawares and slyly suggesting how susceptible to being fooled we remain today. “The central underlying issue,” notes the press release, “is America’s readiness to blindly believe whatever the media reports as ‘factual’ news.” Ring any bells?
According to Howard Koch, who wrote the radio play (from Koch’s 1940 “The Panic Broadcast: The Whole Story of Orson Welles’ Legendary Radio Show Invasion From Mars”):
“Between nine o’clock eastern standard time and dawn of the next day men, women and children in scores of towns and cities were in flight from objects that had no existence except in their imaginations.”
As master of the mischievousness, Regen Wilson took a while to get into the admittedly larger-than-life character of Orson Welles, sounding not at all like him at the start (and his smaller stature a bit of a jolt for those of us who recall the six-foot-plus Welles) but gaining in resonance as the play progressed. His right-hand-at-headphoned-ear stance recalling the classic photograph, his peremptory shouts and cues to cast and crew, eyes blazing (the signature Welles pipe in mouth at all other times), accompanied by fiery thrusts of arm and extended pointer finger, brook no hesitation or argument, and he ends with a Harry Lime-like smile — the one Welles was probably wearing inside during his public, post-show press-conference profession of innocence. In the end, it works.
As the New York Studio and Meridian Room announcers, respectively — the Meridian Room the supposed site of the dance program whose music is repeatedly interrupted by the fake news alerts — John Tweel and Lee Ordeman are pitch-perfect, their heightened delivery and vocal tone astonishingly like those of their Thirties counterparts, “news broadcasters” Dan Seymour and William Alland. (Note to trivia buffs: Alland is the faceless Reporter whose quest to find the meaning of Charlie Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” would be the maguffin of Welles’s Citizen Kane three years later.)
The “citizens” in the audience each have their own personal take on — and stake in — what’s happening over the airwaves, and while their characters, in both senses of the word, are broadly drawn and true to type, the implications of what they say and how they say it reach beyond them both morally and temporally. Sissel Bakken’s haughty blonde society matron, a fox stole draped over a pencil-thin shape clad in pearls, silk gloves and a sheath of ivory satin (costumes are by Megan Perry Holeva), waves a slender cigarette dismissively. Bakken is magnificently loathsome as she pontificates with dripping sarcasm, her hair pulled up and back in a Tippi Hedren twist, not a hair disturbed by whatever insignificant nonsense may be happening beyond her own very insular and secure world.
Two women (Kathryn Cocroft and Leigh Anna Fry) decide that they are offended by the program: “Hitler managed to scare the world” with his saber-rattling, they complain, and it meant nothing at all to them; the Welles scare was just another example. Across the way, a lone voice suggests that something may have been happening with the Jews over there, but she is quickly drowned out by more insistent ones with a personal, self-interested ax to grind.
The supporting cast do yeoman’s work, several of them at one point literally when the six men — all but Wilson’s Welles, who stands above, regarding them with a mixture of amusement and approval from his carpeted center-stage podium — turn themselves into an air squadron to convince the listeners that the Air Force is on the job. Hands on each other’s shoulders, their bodies forming a convex “V,” its deadly tip aimed at the audience, the announcers and their cohorts, grinning from ear to ear, become little boys playing human warplanes whose vocal cords have matured to robust, throaty manhood.
As the radio play comes to a close, and Professor Pierson (Welles/Wilson), the Princeton academic whose expert advice is sought early on, addresses the listeners from the cave in which, pursued by man-eating Martians, he has found shelter, one is moved to inquire why this simple fact — that he is speaking from what he describes as a now barren planet — didn’t reveal to everyone who may have been frightened that it was, well . . . not real. Perhaps the best answer came from critic Alexander Woolcott, who noted puckishly in a telegram to Welles that the program that usually attracted the most listeners at that hour featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wisecracking wooden partner Charlie McCarthy, but that they’d switched dials when romantic singer Nelson Eddy came on instead: “This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and that all the dummies were listening to you.”
But let’s let Welles have the last word. When asked by director Peter Bogdanovich, who interviewed him in the late 1960s to early 1970s for what would become the 500+-page “This Is Orson Welles,” to reflect on the public reaction to the broadcast, Welles wryly noted that “We began to realize, as we plowed on with the destruction of New Jersey, that the extent of our American lunatic fringe had been underestimated.”
A play both timely and timeless, Scena’s The War of the Worlds, spare though it may be, should also not be underestimated. For those with an hour to spare, it shouldn’t be missed.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS