The “golden age of radio” probably produced no greater wit than nasal-voiced social commentator Fred Allen (1894-1956), whose weekly chats with the colorful denizens of “Allen’s Alley” were a national broadcast staple for 18 years (1932-1950). Playwright Arnold Peyser’s bio comedy is an awkwardly conceived effort to survey Allen’s life and career, further hindered by Pamela Hall’s unimaginative staging and a woefully insecure outing by TV vet Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show”) as Allen. Riley never comes close to duplicating Allen’s wry, perfectly timed comedic commentaries despite the supportive efforts of a talented ensemble.
The production is set at an NBC broadcast studio in 1956, six years after the cancelation of “Allen’s Alley.” The occasion is a reunion of Allen, his wife Portland Hoffa (Denise Moses), and the ensemble of actors who had created all the memorable characters who inhabited Allen’s fictional location.
The stated purpose of the gathering is to prepare a retrospective memorial edition of “Allen’s Alley,” but that’s just a devise to reprise memorable vignettes from the show and rehash the events of Allen’s life, including his early vaudeville years, his relationship with Portland, his made-up feud with radio rival Jack Benny (Whitney Rydbeck), as well as his struggles with network executives, censors and the encroaching Communist witch hunts.
Hall never establishes a conversational rapport among the ensemble, mainly due to Peyser’s overly expositional text, which segues awkwardly from performance to “remember when” chatter. The classic “Allen’s Alley” routines fail to produce the intended nostalgia, sabotaged by Riley’s inability to provide any kind of performance energy or style.
This completely neutralizes the admirable characterizations of Allen’s repertory ensemble, including Peter Donald (Ted Schwartz), Kenny Delmar (Glenn Taranto), Parker Fennelly (William Knight) and Minerva Pious (Diane Botnick). This vocally facile quartet brings to life, respectively, such legendary fictional personalities as the always inebriated Ajax Cassidy, blowhard politician Senator Claghorn, ultimate New England curmudgeon Titus Moody, and the hilarious Yiddish housewife, Mrs. Nussbaum.
Moses is quite believable as the always perky and adoring Portland, and Rydbeck provides a brief but memorable turn as Jack Benny. In the first act, Rydbeck also delivers the requisite radio broadcast sound effects.
Tech credits are unspectacular but serviceable for this disappointing journey down memory lane.