Review: Scena Theatre's 'The War of the Worlds' at H Street Playhouse

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By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010

Scena Theatre is reviving its 2006 revival of one of the great entertainment pranks of all time, Orson Welles's 1938 Halloween week radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." As before, director Robert McNamara has assembled a large cast to re-create not only the mischievous men sowing mayhem from the safety of a CBS radio studio, but also to voice the reactions of the widely duped public.

The drama is credited to Welles and Howard Koch, who together adapted H.G. Wells's sci-fi standard about Martians invading Earth. That's what McNamara's cast performs on Michael C. Stepowany's simple studio set at the H Street Playhouse. Men in dark pants, white shirts and suspenders hustle around with scripts in hand, intoning into stand-up microphones and creating their own alarming sound effects as they chronicle the fake Martian invasion.

Planted in the audience are women in 1930s costumes, speaking lines presumably created by Scena that testify to how they were lulled into believing the invasion was real. The advantage of this device is that it conspicuously calls into question our ongoing reliance, if not our undying faith, in media. The disadvantage, more now than before, is that it's cheesy: The interjections have a naive breathlessness that renders the public as utter fools.

That didn't seem to matter so much when the show played the tiny District of Columbia Arts Center, where the brisk doings inside the studio were so capably rendered that the hour flew by. The new show at H Street is still dense, but it doesn't crackle with tension and professional purpose quite the way it did before. This version seems better at pandemonium -- lots of noise and confusion, but less good ol' suspense. The hoax was surely more probable because Hitler's Germany had recently gobbled up Austria -- threat was already in the air -- but the production, though aware of history, doesn't really move you toward the magnitude of it.

The large ensemble seems pleased to be carrying out Welles's joke, though, smirking among themselves as they carry out each bogus chapter. Regen Wilson is the ringleader as Welles, and while he doesn't have the uncanny Wellesian presence that Dan Brick summoned in the role at DCAC, he does have a naughty Mephistophelean grin. As Welles, Wilson occupies a central raised platform and silently cues the program, shoulders shaking with silent laughter at the thought of what he's getting away with.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

War of the Worlds

By Orson Welles and Howard Koch, based on the novel by H.G. Welles. Directed by Robert McNamara. Lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Megan Perry Holeva; sound/video, Erik Trester. With Chris Mrozowski, John Tweel, Steve Lebens, Lee Ordeman, David Paglin, Mick McGuire, Robert Sheire, Theo Hadjimichael, Elizabeth Jernigan, Kathryn Cocroft, Sissel Bakken, Leigh Anna Fry, Colleen Smith. About one hour. Call 703-683-2824 or visit

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