Being John Roberts, Seeing Charlie Kaufman

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Here in the 21st century, it's rather rare when you get to say the following words: It's been a good week for radio drama.

Dramatic radio programming once held this country's ears in much the same fashion as today's sit-coms and reality show. At prime-time radio's height in the mid-1940's, networks offered 47 hours of dramatic programming each week.

Sixty years and thousands of cable television stations have left the art form close to extinct, but radio plays still are written and recorded today. Most of the time they come to us courtesy of London and the >BBC; but our own capital of Washington D.C. has been providing us with an entire sweeps week of fun courtesy of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sure you can watch the confirmation of Judge John Roberts on C-SPAN, but honestly, the lumbering structure and long-winded speeches of our upper chamber's hearings really play best when heard over the airwaves.

With the exception of an occasional holding up of a chart or a dramatic tug of the eyeglasses, watching these events is pretty slow going. It's only when you listen--and listen closely--that you can hear the theater in Biden's blustery Mamet-speak, Lindsey Graham's folksy Thornton Wilder-like candor, and Schumer's Arthur Miller-esque moral righteousness.

Sadly, Roberts's earnest, but measured speech reveals no relation to an American dramatist, or even his personal beliefs about law. No, besides his famed intelligence and discipline, all these hearings have shown is that the judge has a rather poor sense of comic timing.

When Senator Schumer pressed him, arguing that he wouldn't even tell the committee what constitutes a good film, let alone a good law, Roberts didn't answer without missing a beat--no instead he waited, cautiously, until he was given the floor and then quipped Dr. Zhivago and North by Northwest. Instead of the entire chamber erupting in laughter, the Judge mustered a few solid chuckles.

Luckily, Southern Californian fans of radio comedy (or comedy-variety as it was known back in the golden era of radio) are able to turn the proverbial dial. Through tomorrow night only, those wanting to witness fist rate displays of comic timing can not only hear, but see, two wonderful radio plays in a show titled Theatre of the New Ear.

Theatre of the New Ear is a double bill featuring the play, Anomalisa, by a pseudonymous writer named Francis Fregoli, followed by a piece called Hope Leaves the Theater, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman.

Hope Leaves the Theater was performed in New York earlier this year before being aired on Satellite radio, but it's been slightly tweaked for these live performances here at Royce Hall.

This &quotsound; play" has all the hallmarks of Kaufman's Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the live theatrical element adds something special to the piece. Besides the joy of watching master Foley Artist Marko Constanzo create the sound effects, there is great pleasure (and appreciation) to be gained in watching the actors play multiple parts--often switching roles and genders in the blink of an eye.

Many in the near capacity crowd at UCLA were on hand to see the starry casts--and indeed, seeing Meryl Streep playing a sassy, black woman waiting for a L.A. city bus is worth the ticket price alone--but the real reason to go is that its an excellent reminder how the human ear can conjure images that rival even the most eye-popping visuals.

This is especially true of Anomalisa which involves a telemarketing guru's trip to Cincinnati. This magical piece, which on the page might read like simply a quaint short story, takes on a new life thanks to Constanzo's sounds--which make mundane tasks like getting a bucket of ice or drying off after a shower seem like epic theatrical events. Also adding to the rich atmosphere is composer Carter Burwell's effective live score.

Listening, let alone watching, radio plays shouldn't be this fun, but thanks to Charlie Kauffman and his first-rate cast, hope, laughter and innovation have are in no danger of leaving the theater. Now, if we could just get some musical accompaniment and a few sound effects to back up Arlen Spector and Pat Leahy.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.