It has to be said, with a show titled The Man With Bogart’s Face, that I expected it to be primarily about someone who looked a bit like legendary film and theatre actor Humphrey Bogart. And yet, the reference to the lead character’s plastic surgery to resemble Bogart was just a throwaway moment at the beginning of the Black Box Theatre’s latest production.
In actuality, the plot follows Sam Marlowe (Scott Tunnicliff), a new private investigator and Bogart fan, as he tries cracking a few different cases, most of which eventually intersect. What makes this production unique, though, is that it’s presented as a '40s radio play complete with live actors and studio operators. So while you could opt to sit in the audience with closed eyes, letting the plot sweep your imagination into the pre-television age of a live radio show, you’d miss out on the visual delight director Lora Adams creates.
Adams also designed the set and, with Michael Kopriva’s skilled construction, transformed the space into a radio studio, complete with a control room and the requisite “On the Air” light. With three stand microphones for the bevy of actors to use and seating for them when they were “out of character,” the Black Box looked as great as I’ve yet seen.
Vintage radio roles are freeing for actors, considering that the physical characteristics – or real ages – of the on-air talent simply don't matter. Accordingly, Adams could cast The Man With Bogart’s Face based only on the tone and expressiveness of the actors’ voices, and she got some of the Quad Cities’ finest voice artistry for this production.
Tunnicliff, with his gravely, Bogart-esque sound, had a huge role, serving as the main character and narrator of his own story. Commanding one microphone for most of the show, Tunnicliff was fun to watch, especially when exasperated by banana-wielding secretary Duchess (Ashley Hanson). Tunnicliff’s stagnancy at a single mic, however, meant he didn’t contribute to the best part of this production: nearly everyone else not speaking, and simply sitting in the chairs waiting in their on-stage personae that were different than their actual selves and their characters within the plot.
The Man with Bogart's Face's talented cast of nine was fabulous with their distinct vocal abilities, but the bulk of the entertainment came from watching them when they weren’t talking at all. As they silently flipped through their scripts, exchanged looks, and nicked drinks either from the provided pitcher of water or a hidden flask that was passed around, the background business we could see elevated this production beyond just what we could hear in a standard radio play, creating a complete evening of entertainment.
Never again will the “talking into a paper-towel tube to mimic talking on the telephone” gag be as charming or well-done as it was when we first meet Patti Flaherty’s young ingénue Elsa. Flaherty’s character voice was so spot-on and enjoyable that it was a real shame, after intermission, when we no longer saw that character. Even though most of the cast reads the parts of more than one character, Flaherty’s talent was strictly limited to Elsa, and I, for one, could’ve listened to her all night.
Ranging from a tiny little Greek man to a Middle Eastern millionaire, Philip Dunbridge’s creative dexterity was quite enjoyable to watch. Dunbridge has excellent vocal qualities in his multiple roles, never dropping an accent and adding physicality to the personae that, while not completely necessary, brought humor to the production. Dunbridge’s Nicky was offset by one of Susan Perrin-Sallak’s characters, Mother, with her deep gravelly pitch that definitely didn’t match the regal air Perrin-Sallak brought to the stage.
Credited as the “world’s worst Foley operator,” Don Faust, like all Foley operators, was in charge of recreating all sound effects needed for the production. And I regretted my seating choice almost immediately as the show began, as I sat far away from Faust’s little sound-effect table set-up. Given that he had the most interesting business of the production, watching Faust wrangle water, corn flakes, and bullets to create a sound experience was art all on its own. Whenever Faust fired a gun (and, let it be known, there are a lot of gunshots), he’d aim the gun, cover his ears, and wince before firing. It was hilarious to watch and, luckily, gave a clear indication the gun was soon to go off. (Even still, it managed to startle the bulk of Saturday night’s audience whenever it did) Faust, dressed in an oversized white shirt and laughably small tie to complete the ridiculousness of his character, may have been scripted to be untalented, but it’s certainly untrue. It takes true skill to pull off inept.
The rest of the cast was similarly wonderful. James Driscoll served as the performer designated to fall down to create the sound effect needed anytime someone tripped, fell, or was wounded. (And poor Driscoll was on the floor often.) Lisa Kahn brought us the bulk of the ever-funny kissing-sound “mm-m-m-ms.” And Mark Ruebling stood out as my favorite as the radio’s announcer in the sound booth, bringing us in and out of the story at the beginning, intermission, and end.
This show tunes its audience into the golden age of radio, providing rapid action, dialogue, and humor while solving capers. Even those not at all familiar with Humphrey Bogart should appreciate the high-quality escapism entertainment.
The Man with Bogart's Face runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline) through October 19, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 or visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.