by Steve Nardoni
The Big Uncut Flick (now playing at the Studio Theatre on Theatre Row) is a droll scramble into the look of early television and film noir, using an array of hysterical theatrics to replicate the era of the 1950s while folding in anachronistic additions like “gender-bending” into the omelet.
A little history first: In the late 1940s and early 1950s, DuMont Television was America’s fourth television network, first to compete for the growing television audience against CBS, NBC and ABC, long before Fox jumped into the business in its attempt to usurp The Big Three. The network featured shows that re-broadcast movies, like Western Movie, Feature Theater, Mystery Theater, Adventure Playhouse, and Cinema Varieties.
And a little background from the script notes:
“ . . . the set of a TV studio in New York City . . . There is a man and a woman seated on the set . . . Jack Sheldon . . . is second-rate comic . . . the woman is Arlene Lewis . . .a stage actress and former radio personality . . .They are now reduced to hosting ancient movies on a dying network’s (DuMont) midday television program in the early 1950s.”
Immediately we know we are in for some fun. Jack (J. Richey Nash) a genial, if overbearing, matinee idol-type has a bluster and sense of humor fortified by a shaker of martinis. His co-hostess Arlene (Todd Michael) has the bearing of a woman trained in the theater: coiffed hair, pursed lips, arched eyebrows and with a voice modulated by that quasi-British accent cultivated by so many actresses in the 30s and 40s. So Mr. and Mrs. Matinee, are a pompous, wise-cracking dipsomaniac and a woman of a certain age looking like Marie Dressler in drag. Make that more like Dick Cheney in drag.
Anywho, after endless prattle typical of such hosted shows of the era (and of course the perfunctory pitch of a sponsor’s product) Jack and Arlene (I keep thinking of Arlene Francis as I write this) introduce the 1934 crime drama Say Your Prayers, Ya Mug.
The lights dim, and once raised we are in a police station with two of the characters in this 18 character “flick.” The 18 characters are played by only six actors in the cast, a fascinating feat! The hero, Sgt. Danny Kimmel, is skillfully played by Melissa Firlitt who charms her audience with a tongue-in-cheek performance, aided by classic film noir lines like “How’d you like to be looking cockeyed at the end of a nightstick?” or “A good hard right to the spinach box and I would’ve had that canary singing like a stool pigeon.”
Kimmel is embroiled in various detective stuff while the play introduces a range of characters including more cops, mobsters, dames, a reporter, tipsy Mrs. O’Brien, a prisoner on the lam, a nun, a lawyer and a doctor. The wow of this is that the actors were seamlessly able to jump to as many as five characters and convincingly project the persona of each.
Interspersed in the movie are commercial breaks with Mr. and Mrs. Matinee hawking various products (or displaying a cool TV Guide look-alike cover with Howdy Doody! (Some of us remember Howdy Doody.) The writer also cleverly interrupts the film with lost sound and film breakage, stuff that happened all too often, forcing the network to “cut the uncut.” As each planned or unplanned break occurs, Jack (getting a little drunker) and Arlene have to amusingly juggle the vagaries of live television to salvage the show.
And each time we go back to the movie we are treated to snappy 1930s dialogue and slapdash costume changes to accommodate the many characters. Particularly notable were Dan Morrison flopping back and forth from the shyster lawyer to tipsy Mrs. O’Brien, and to the hilarious Dr. Brower. Craig MacArthur switches from the nerdy stage manager to the escaped convict Red—it took me a while to figure out he was playing both. I have an affinity for nuns and David Zwiers (who also designed the costumes) did Mother Celestine good!
Embracing and melding two separate genres like early live television with 1930s gangster films would at first appear to be an effort in “too much” However writer Todd Michael and Director Synge Maher pull it off, with a madcap flair and an ensemble with the side-splitting talent to nail down their roles.
The Big Uncut Flick. Through December 17 at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. www.thebiguncutflick.com
Photos: Jamie Cox