Noir appeals to me more than most any other genre because it indulges my cynical side. When a weak-willed hero fails to thwart systemic corruption through sheer incompetence, it makes emotional sense because on some level, I believe this how it is. The period details are a secondary pleasure – classic noir is the perfect example of “they don’t make them like they used to.” Mad Men notwithstanding, it’s rare to see characters who wear sharp clothes as they booze/smoke leisurely. Whereas most modern noir riffs on thematic content, it often eschews mid-20th century style. In this regard, Handbook for Hosts is a pleasure for those who relish 40s cool. There’s little thematic depth, but with wit and confident performances, the show is weirdly compelling.
Far from a tight plot, the performance is instead a collection of inspired vignettes. Some riff on noir dialogue, whereas others nostalgically recall popular radio from the period. The uniting thread is the plight of two Soviet spies, Boris and Natalya, who search for hidden code in old-timey radio broadcasts. At one point, femme fatales order a cocktail in the same seductive manner, and each iteration is more absurd than the last. Other highlights include jingle recreations with charming ukulele melodies from Mark Jaster, as well as the audience’s participation in onstage crime. The cast rely on classic archetypes to fill in plot holes, and succeed through oodles of confidence. Melissa Krodman, aka BYT’s favorite H Street Guide, casts a stunning silhouette and isn’t afraid of losing herself in the action. Michael Sazonov, who looks like a skinnier Michael Fassbender, best captures the forgotten cadence from film/radio’s golden age. And as Natalya, Sabrina Mandell’s scheming Soviet offers a welcome mix of pluck and frustration.
The production shares its title with Esquire’s party-throwing guide. Excerpts are read by actors and through the speakers, and while the language feels antiquated, it is easy to notice the suggestions are still quite helpful. Vintage credits and clever costumes similarly evoke a time where gents and ladies all strove for a similar ideal. Without a tight story to ensnare the audience, Handbook for Hosts nonetheless reminds us that modern style isn’t necessarily an improvement.
Handbook for Hosts, a co-production of Banished Productions and Happenstance Theater, is playing at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Stage. Upcoming performances are on July 15, 17, 18, and 24. Buy tickets here!