Monday, November 6, 2023

Review: Orson Welles’ ‘The War of the Worlds,’ (Re)staged Live at Barrymore Film Center, Fort Lee NJ

In a way, it was natural that Barrymore Film Center would follow the 1953 movie adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds with an even more unusual event: a live stage reading of the notorious 1938 radio broadcast that propelled its 23-year-old wunderkind director, Orson Welles, into the national consciousness.

Eighty-five years after radio listeners heard that Martians had landed in rural Grover’s Mill, NJ, would you believe it happened all over again in another part of the state Saturday night? Only this time it wasn’t millions of listeners unnerved, but a more select group of a few hundred attendees in suburban Fort Lee.

Over the years, several plausible reasons have been suggested for why the CBS broadcast became such a sensation, including an announcement at the start of the show noting that this was a dramatization of the Wells novel that was missed by listeners switching from another station, as well as the air of verisimilitude created by Welles through faux news reports on the invaders and the names of real New Jersey locations (instead of the British ones in Wells’ novel).

But, as I listened to the actors reading with gusto the original radio script by Howard Koch (who would secure even greater fame in a few years with his work on the movie Casablanca), I couldn’t help feeling that Welles had tapped into contemporary fears to an extent that he and his Mercury Theater company of actors didn’t remotely anticipate.

Director Ray Faiola, assuming Welles’ original role in setting the stage for the terror, somberly intoned that “Business was better; the war scare was over”—clear references to America finally easing out of the Great Depression and to the false “peace in our time” proclaimed a month earlier by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after appeasing Adolf Hitler at Munich.

Within a few short years, terror was coming not from a fictional War of the Worlds but an actual World War II, with devastation engulfing entire nations rather than simply patches of the Garden State.

At the same time, I felt my own sense of unease about the script’s application to human beings of our time unaware of what they were doing to the climate as I heard the lines, “With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.”

Throughout, Faiola—a retired director of audience services for CBS, and currently appearing on the small screen in “The Secret Diary of an Exchange Student,” “Darcy,” and “Confession”—ably read Welles’ lines from decades ago, even as he monitored the effects from technical supervisor Eldric Etra.

 (An extra thrill of the proceedings was hearing once again the incidental music of composer Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to score Welles’ Citizen Kane and much of Alfred Hitchcock’s best work from the Fifties and Sixties.)

At the end of the show, after all the terror of the events he narrated, Faiola seemed particularly amused as he read Welles’ non-apology apology after CBS urged him to make a statement on the hullabaloo:

“Of course we are deeply shocked and deeply regretful about the results of last night’s broadcast. It came as rather a great surprise to us that the H. G. Welles classic—which is the original for many fantasies about invasions by mythical monsters from the planet Mars—I was extremely surprised to learn that a story which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories, should have had such an immediate and profound effect on radio listeners.

Faiola and the quartet of actors with him onstage—Sean Marrinan, Wayne Pyle, Craig Marin and Kevin Miller—have had considerable experience with bringing back to life the world of radio drama, as they have been longtime participants in Halloween “Terror at the Mike” thriller series that have been staged in Ellenville, NY. The audience on Saturday night was the great beneficiary of their feeling and reverence for the medium.

It appears that this might have been the first time that the Barrymore—which opened a little over a year ago—has tried this kind of experiment. Judging from the healthy attendance and the appreciative response of the crowd, I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of re-staged radio dramatization becomes an annual event—maybe even around Halloween again?

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