When CBS heads let Orson Welles bring the Martian-invasion fantasy The War of the Worlds to every living room in America the night before Halloween, they didn’t expect mass hysteria. Sure, Welles wrote the play to sound like an actual emergency news broadcast about Martians landing in a real town in New Jersey, describing actual buildings and places and including special effects that sounded disturbingly real. There were reports of smelling poisonous gas, emotional breakdowns, and people seeing Martians in spaceships near the Jersey Palisades.
Pretty soon, people were abandoning their homes, packing their cars with food and ammo, and trying like hell to get out of North Jersey. (I’ll pause to let the one New Yorker reading this make a bridge-and-tunnel-crowd joke). Even though Welles announced at the end of the one-hour broadcast that it was all fun and make-believe, the Red Cross was still trying to convince families who had fled to the mountains that it was safe to run home.
To say that people were miffed when they found out it was a Halloween prank would be an understatement. Welles was almost arrested, and then almost fired, and both Welles and CBS had to issue public apologies. Thankfully, the FCC then crafted rules ensuring that no American would ever be misled by the media again. Yay!
Scena Theatre’s stage rendition aims to take audience members back to 1938 and the CBS studio where the mischief took place. By planting in the audience actors who play “normal Americans”—-offering accounts of listening to broadcast—-the play tries to do several things at once. It tries to re-create in real-time the implications of the Welles broadcast; it tries to draw parallels between that event and how blindly we sometimes follow the media today; and it tries to bring laughs. It succeeds in the last category. But the from-the-audience accounts paint a hackneyed, cartoonish portrayal of America in the ’30s that’s funny for the characters’ gullibility—-so much so that we don’t quite identify with how easy it is, even in our era, to be fooled by a reliable source.
Chew over, if you wish, the logic of watching a play meant for radio, but director Robert McNamara and his cast glimpse at how innovative the genre used to be before it had to compete with television and the Internet. As you watch the chaos unfold in the broadcast room, you’ll note the thousands of little interactions that occur: like actors playing multiple roles by using different accents, taking breaks to munch on donuts before throwing themselves off a table, or dropping large objects to make a sound effect. It’s a funny and endearing effort with a talented cast—-it’s just too bad we spend so much more time laughing at them than at ourselves.
Scena Theatre‘s The War of the Worlds continues through Nov. 28 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE.