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Theater tunes ‘Ear’

Scripters team up to turn on radio play

Seeing Meryl Streep onstage playing Meryl Streep in a play written by a recently deceased Charlie Kaufman sounds like — well — a Charlie Kaufman movie.

The 600-seat St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn sold out for three nights, April 28-30, with an unusual mix of theater intelligentsia, New York-based Hollywood stars and the many film-geek members of the Coen brothers/Charlie Kaufman fan club to see the screen writers team up with composer Carter Burwell to revive an art form — the radio play — that experienced its heyday some 50 years ago.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Sawbones,” a rollicking farce about a disconnected couple watching a TV show about a frontier doctor, was performed by Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Slattery and Brooke Smith.

Kaufman’s “Hope Leaves the Theater” was performed by Streep, Hope Davis and Peter Dinklage.

The “Theater of the New Ear,” as the production is called, was scheduled for three nights in Brooklyn and one at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

One more night in Los Angeles is being considered for the fall, depending on the schedules of more than two dozen actors, musicians, writer-directors and stage managers involved, not to mention the sound guy.

Perhaps it was fitting that the radio dramas were performed a week before the 95th birthday of Norman Corwin, who, along with Orson Welles, is one of the form’s greatest practitioners.

The radio drama, a staple of family entertainment before television, has been relegated to the nostalgic fringe, preserved in English largely by Garrison Keillor and the BBC.

Douglas Adams made his name on BBC’s Radio 4 when “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” started as a radio comedy series in 1974; NPR recreated the original “Star Wars” trilogy, directed by John Madden.

The latest resurrection of the form is being underwritten, in part, by Sirius Satellite Radio, which will broadcast the plays in June. For Sirius, it’s a low-risk gambit to give high-wattage film writers and stars a chance to try the medium and to gauge the public interest in radio drama.

It’s hard to imagine this will be the last such radio drama, given the speed of the sellouts in Brooklyn and London, the interest of Hollywood (Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Stanley Tucci, Sidney Lumet, Frances McDormand and John Turturro attended) and the open pocketbook of Sirius, which says it wants more of the same.

“I think the trick will be sustaining it,” says Susan Albert Loewenberg, producing director of L.A. Theater Works, which has been recording stage plays for 20 years, selling them on CD, broadcasting them on public radio and, of course, on Sirius competitor XM Satellite Radio.

The idea of doing radio dramas came about after Burwell was asked by Royal Festival Hall to conduct some pieces he had written for film. Burwell, who composed the music for all the Coen brothers’ films as well as Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” wanted to do something more original, so he proposed the idea of a radio drama to the Coens and Kaufman.

Here was a way to get big stars involved with a drama without the costumes, rehearsals and time commitment of a stage play or a feature film. The idea seemed particularly timely now that it seems every Hollywood A-lister has done a stint as an animated character in a DreamWorks film, or voiceover for Madison Avenue.

After Kaufman and the Coens signed on, they proposed it to Sirius prexy Scott Greenstein, who had worked with the Coens on “The Man Who Wasn’t There” when he was chairman of USA Films.

Watching the plays, one is tempted to at least try not to be entertained by the visual effect of Streep playing 13 characters, John Goodman’s antic mugging or the whirlwind activity of Marko Costanzo, the Foley artist. This last breaks crisp celery to create the sound of shattering bones and twists balloons for the sound of twisting intestines. (Is that really how they sound?)

The drama should hold up without the visuals or suffer from their distraction, but the spectacle is irresistible, so what you get, in effect, is two plays.

In one, there’s the visual of the beautiful Hope Davis playing a woman who believes her ass is too fat to make it down a theater aisle. But because she’s reading, not acting, the mind conjures another image of what this woman might look like.

“I have actors playing characters they don’t look at all like,” Kaufman says. “It works more like reading or closer to reading in that the audience’s imagination is activated, whereas in a movie or a play you see what’s happening.”

The actors perform lined up across the front of the stage behind music stands with the Foley artist in the center. Burwell sits off to the side conducting an orchestra elevated at the rear of the stage.

The audience responded to the humor of the play, and often to the expressions of the actors. The real test, Kaufman says, is whether the action translates to a solitary moment, perhaps in a car on a dark road.

“That’s my image of radio plays,” Kaufman says. “It’s stuff beaming into your head, at night. It’s spooky. It’s mysterious. Its part of the radio experience that’s different from other live experiences.”

More niche radio could mean more radio dramas — or just another onetime revival of a form that will again fade further into history.

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