A century before COVID shuttered theaters and shrink-wrapped entertainment into Zoom cubicles that dulled half our senses, radio drama was ushered in.
In the 1920s, there were no earpods for private consumption or DVRs for delayed gratification. Families huddled around the same crackly speaker for entertainment, often delivered by actors nursing the same mic in real time, as Foley artists slapped shoe soles to mimic footsteps or summoned thunder with undulating aluminum.
Fast-forward to 21st-century podcasts and audiobooks, canned productions that have retrained our brains and stoked what seems an insatiable aural appetite. But such sound bites are often digested while multitasking.
Cue the 21st Century Players with an audio play that demands your undivided attention and recharges the imagination. The troupe’s debut, two-act, hour-long, YouTube-hosted What Comes Next, or Meet the Dunnes, deftly directed by Martin Blank, even might require multiple listens to appreciate its labyrinthine layers.
Executive producer and lead player Steve Lebens exploits a natural radio voice, with the gravitas of Orson Welles or Rod Serling, to personify Guy, a cynical sage rudely awakened in the afterlife.
But The Good Place it’s not. (Despite a combat scene that might leave you wondering, “What the fork?!”) This “Next” dimension is more of a nightmarish fever dream haunted by annoying relatives, twisted therapy sessions, memory lapses, well-tread aphorisms, and not-to-die-for meals. The listener learns to discern five disembodied voices playing more than a dozen disembodied souls. Some are easier to track than others, though crisp sound design by John D. Lofton IV proves flawless — a hint of flipping script pages notwithstanding.
Producer and actress Lisa Hodsoll hones a plaintive Southern charmer in Belle and also nails the fussy lady in charge, Moira. Crystal Swann, a stand-up comic in another life, delivers a luscious counterpoint to Guy as an earnest, grounded Girly, in an exasperating second act that’s decidedly not for children.
Award-winning playwright Laurence Klavan’s script veers from soap opera satire to tongue-in-cheek horror (I adored Ger FitzGerald’s original music, which borrowed a slice of Psycho) to madcap shenanigans — in which this chameleon cast excels, particularly utility players Slice Hicks and Michael Replogle. (Full disclosure: Replogle, who decades ago coached young thespians as the creator and director of the Fairfax [Virginia] Academy’s Professional Musical Theatre & Actors Studio, once told my daughter, a student of his, that her gummy smile would land her roles as either women of ill repute or those with mental disabilities. For her, it was a compliment, as two dream roles were Aldonza in Man of La Mancha and Clara in The Light in the Piazza.)
But stay laser-focused and keep Google handy, as high-falutin’ vocab such as chiaroscuros and mishpachah pepper Klavan’s wordplay. Some references are tough to decipher, such as why Guy must travel 128 steps to reach his eternal threshold. In numerology, 128 represents teamwork, folks functioning together — yet Guy is clearly a non–team player bent on solving the meaning of the afterlife in tormented Groundhog Day fashion.
A favorite line: “You flicked your smoldering butt at my old dry wood and now no one can put us out.” And that’s the love scene. Suffice to say, these suffering, pill-poppin’ Dunnes might do you in.
In an era of TikTok attention spans, What Comes Next, or Meet the Dunnes is a refreshing dive into storied traditions that came before: the anti-bourgeois avant-garde, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, and Native American lore. And lo! A cow.
Running time: One hour including a brief pause between acts.
What Comes Next, or Meet the Dunnes
Written by Laurence Klavan
Directed by Martin Blank
Producer: Lisa Hodsoll
Executive Producer: Steve Lebens
Belle, Actress, Moira: Lisa Hodsoll
Kleiner, Beau, Little Timmy: Michael Replogle
Doctor, Actor, Usher, Pop-pop: Slice Hicks
Etta, Kukla, Girly: Crystal Swann
Guy: Steve Lebens
Sound Design by John D. Lofton IV
Music composed by Gerald FitzGerald
Graphic design by Pat Perry-Burgess