NYT: It's a Wonderful Life

George Bailey, in Living Color and on the Radio


Dear devoted fans of a certain 1946 Frank Capra holiday movie: Relax. The holiday production at Long Wharf Theater has done absolutely no harm to the original. In fact, it has added another layer of nostalgia.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is exactly what it says it is. Five actors, supported by a sound-effects man, deliver the lines of all the characters from the movie. Four are dressed in fashions suggesting that their characters live in the golden age of radio, almost certainly the 1940s. The fifth (Alex Moggridge) appears to be a 21st-century guy who has wandered into a dusty, deserted old radio studio and sees the others as ghosts. In short order, though, he is interacting with them. In fact, he finds himself cast in the role of George Bailey, originally played by Jimmy Stewart.

As fans of the movie know, George has grown up in Bedford Falls, an idyllic small town, determined to get out. He plans to see the world and build skyscrapers or something else huge when he grows up. But circumstances keep him at home. His father dies. The rich, evil Mr. Potter tries to liquidate the Bailey family’s savings-and-loan business (and basically take over the town). George’s brother, Harry, marries a great woman whose father has offered him a promising career opportunity, far away from his hometown. When the accidental loss of $8,000 leaves George on the verge of disaster, he contemplates killing himself.

The heartwarming part is right around the corner. Clarence, George’s slightly bumbling 292-year-old guardian angel, comes to earth to help him. By showing George what Bedford Falls and numerous loved ones would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence manages to turn him around. Which is no surprise, since apparently without George, the town would have turned into sleazy Pottersville long ago. Lifted from a suicidal depression, George Bailey is a man with a reawakened appreciation of his life and the people he loves. It all happens on Christmas Eve, and an angel gets his wings.

There is a touch of “Gatz,” the Elevator Repair Service’s re-creation of “The Great Gatsby” (which is returning to the Public Theater in 2012), in this production. In “Gatz,” a man in a dismal office begins reading from a copy of the novel, but his co-workers soon join in and the actors turn the office into all the settings for the story, with only the help of sound design. In this “Wonderful Life,” the actors begin standing in front of microphones, scripts in hand, but they are soon moving about and interacting in lively, realistic ways, with the help of only the radio-age equivalent of sound design.

And it’s easy for the audience to get caught up in the fun of creating reality from obvious artifice. For that reason, the commercial breaks for Trans World Airlines and a life insurance company engender laughter. And it has to explain why Dan Domingues received long, spontaneous applause at a recent performance when he switched from using Mr. Potter’s choking, coughing old-man voice to the narrator’s mellifluous speech in the blink of an eye.

With the help of the director, Eric Ting, this little coterie of actors create surprisingly vivid and fully believable characters — lots of them. Mr. Domingues also plays, among other characters, Uncle Billy; George’s son; the old man on the front porch telling George to kiss his future wife, Mary; and God. Kevyn Morrow’s characters include Clarence the angel; George’s war-hero brother; Sam Wainwright; and the proud bar owner and homeowner Giuseppe Martini. The very versatile Kate MacCluggage’s characters include Violet, the town bad girl (well, bad by Bedford Falls standards); George’s mother; Mary’s mother; and George’s daughter Zuzu. Mr. Potter, Clarence and Violet are particularly memorable. Ariel Woodiwiss pretty much sticks to playing Mary, and Mr. Moggridge does a sterling job as George. Nathan Roberts, the onstage Foley artist, enhances the illusion with inventive sound effects.

Except for the very first scene, in which Mr. Moggridge silently wanders around the radio station in the semidark for just a little too long, this adaptation by Joe Landry is a lovable, evocative piece. And it’s nice to see that the Long Wharf program includes a tribute to Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote “The Greatest Gift,” the 1943 short story on which the film is based — a story, he said, that had come to him in a dream.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” by Joe Landry, is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Dec 31. 3131. Information: (203) 787-4282 or longwharf.org