Review “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play”

RECOMMENDED

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
When: through Dec. 30
Tickets: $35-$40
Phone: 773-409-4125

There are three main reasons to catch American Theater Company’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” which is competing for your attention, as it has in years past, with American Blues Theatre’s delightful radio adaptation of the iconic Frank Capra film.

The first reason is the chance to see impeccable octogenarian actor Mike Nussbaum earn his wings as the affable, if baffled, angel Clarence and switch gears with lightening speed to embody the evil, oily, gravel-voiced Mr. Potter, not to mention the pharmacist Mr. Gower and a couple of others. The second is to watch Cliff Chamberlain, a company member of The House Theatre, make his debut as George Bailey. Instead of conjuring James Stewart in the movie, he brings his own brand of anger and angst to the role, as well as a heartfelt concern for Bedford Falls, the building and loan, and his beloved Mary (nicely played by Sadieh Rifai). The third is that Chris Amos is letter perfect as the lanky announcer.

The rest of the ensemble is uneven and includes Tony Lawry as Uncle Billy and others, Tyler Ravelson as Harry Bailey and others, and Jessie Fisher as Violet, as well as Rick Kubes as the Foley Artist and appropriately named Rhapsody Snyder on piano. Jason W. Gerace’s direction tends to be a little overwrought (even by 1940s standards), and the result is that some scenes become confusingly loud and chaotic.

As always, the intermission-less ersatz broadcast features amusing ads for real local businesses, radiograms filled out by the audience and read “on air” and milk and cookies at the end. There’s also a pitch from the “Station Manager” urging support for ATC, followed (at least on opening night) by a collection at the door, which I think is tacky —and a poor way to spread holiday cheer.