NOTE: On Friday, May 12, at 11 a.m., The Utah Review will live blog the world premiere of Radio Hour Episode 16: The Case of the Missing Dog, produced by Plan-B Theatre and KUER-FM’s RadioWest program. Tune into KUER-FM 90.1 and follow The Utah Review during the broadcast.
In a writer’s skillful hand, bumbling characters become comic gold. Fifty years ago, one of the most memorable sketches on The Carol Burnett Show was The Mystery of the Bumbling Butler and the Evil Twin Sister, a spoof of Columbo, then among the most popular crime drama series on television. The Burnett sendup had guest star Steve Lawrence solve a mystery as Detective Cobumble, with Tim Conway as the butler.
Later, another television show — Police Squad!, which only lasted six episodes but also earned two Emmys — became the basis for the successful film franchise series known as The Naked Gun, starring Leslie Nielsen. It was a masterful example of leveraging every comedic punch by casting Nielsen as a nonchalant police officer so deeply embedded in his incompetence who nevertheless eventually emerges as the accidental hero. In the first film of the franchise, a comically evil business executive plans to assassinate Queen Elizabeth through mind control. Meanwhile, the eternally bumbling hero kills the villain’s prized fish from Japan with a rare Samurai pen, which was a gift from the Japanese emperor, all while asking routine questions of the executive. Or, when he was struggling to look at evidence through a microscope and then was suggested to “use your open eye, Frank!” The beauty of The Naked Gun was its utterly ridiculous irony while still managing to infuse some realistic commentary about the time and social climate associated with the story.
This week, that rip-roaring genre of ridiculous comedy drenched in pithy irony is front and center in Plan-B Theatre’s world premiere of Radio Hour 16: The Case of the Missing Dog by Brandan Ngo. Directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, the production will air live Friday, May 12, at 11 a.m. on KUER-FM’s RadioWest program and a rebroadcast at 7 p.m. that day.
The Radio Hour Series has been an outstanding co-production for Plan-B and RadioWest, with Doug Fabrizio as host. The Utah Review’s preview of Ngo’s script indicates that it promises to provide some of the funniest moments in the series’ history.
Ngo says in an interview with The Utah Review that he enjoys exploring the cornball possibilities of characters such as a hopelessly incompetent gumshoe. “Discovering the story, I was inspired by old-time radio serials and detective dramas and I loved the red herrings and craziness, which are part of The Naked Gun and the sketches of the Carol Burnett show,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure that as much fun as it was for me to write, it also should be fun to perform.”
The comedic premises Ngo lays out could make seasoned actors break character, as occasionally witnessed during Burnett’s show. “I have always loved the hammy 1920s trans-Atlantic American dialogue,” he said in a Plan-B blog post. “It sounds to me equal parts elegant and corny, characters waxing poetic about their inner thoughts and emotions, unable to keep it down because their love and hatred are bursting at the seams.”
The bumbling detective in Ngo’s play is Jack Mihaff. His caseload has been a lot lighter than usual and at the moment he could not turn down a “simple enough” case about a missing dog. A hint of what listeners can expect to hear from Jack who has a habit of offering TMI: “I needed this job like I needed a handrail on a steep staircase after a night of frightening, experimental love-making.” As listeners will discover, Jack, who tries to be as friendly and likable as possible, has plenty of awkward issues, not just professionally but also personally.
The cast for this corny whodunit is set in the fictitious city of Little Beverly, “a smoky concrete jungle throbbing with the heartbeat of industry, rife with beauty, carnage, and intrigue.” Jack’s colleague is Kitty, who appears at first to be a charming newcomer as his assistant. Jack also thinks there might be a romantic spark with Kitty. Then there is Mayor Butteface and his family, Miss Butteface and son, Junior. Ngo casts the mayor’s family with familiar tropes, including graft, corruption, conflicts of interests and a son who feels ignored and emotionally abandoned.
Remember, however, the case is about a missing dog. Enter Little Lenin – a purebred chihuahua named after, yes, the Vladimir Lenin. Incidentally, the dog has a brief ‘speaking role’ in the production. Also key to the case is the Pink Ponies gang, who have leather jackets “pink as my mother’s Valentine Day drawers,” as Jack explains. Their hangout is The Old Chinatown Hotel and Noodle House, known for their barbecued pork, Jack says, adding it’s “a site for unsavory gangs if I ever saw one.”
Ngo rounds out the cast with other delightful characters, including Jeon Yeong, who knew Jack when they were both dishwashers at the hotel and restaurant. Jeon shudders at the sight of seeing Jack again (who persistently mispronounces his name). He blames him for getting both of them fired. Adding color to the 1920s vibe are characters such as Little Fan, Jimmy, Trainer, Police Officer and Thug. Oh, and there’s a spokesperson with the appropriate sponsor for this radio show: Skinny Carl’s Doggy Daycare and Spa.
Enhancing this Radio Hour episode period setting are sound and music cues, arranged by Dave Evanoff, including the Duke Ellington jazz classic Harlem Nocturne, as well as Sophisticated Ladies, which also celebrates the Ellington musical legacy. Occasionally, it’s a smoky sax solo that cues the scene. Ngo wrote the story in a fast-moving arc of short scenes, suitable for the required NPR station breaks.
Heading the cast as the bumbling detective will be Jay Perry, who has performed in every Radio Hour episode. Making her third appearance in the Radio Hour series, Isabella Reeder will take on the role of Kitty, whose formal name is Katherine Trilby. Matthew Ivan Bennett, who has penned 12 Radio Hour episodes, will appear as Mayor Butteface. Of course, the actors will handle the minor character roles.
Ngo, a member of the company’s Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop, is an actor who also has been writing for the camera for the last six years. Prior to penning an episode for Radio Hour, he had written two plays. One was Where Are You From?, which was read by Plan-B at the Edward Lewis Theatre Festival in 2020. The second, Stranded, was commissioned by Plan-B for the national Play at Home initiative during the pandemic and is included in the Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress. That play featured a stubborn pirate (Popi) while two friends with variations on the pirate’s name – Poppy and Poppie – join the story. The play received its live premiere at the 2021 Rose Exposed show in downtown Salt Lake City.
Ngo says he always has seen comedy as a good way to cope, giving “sugar to go with the medicine.” He adds, “I was a skinny Asian boy in elementary school and I realized that a good way to make friends was to give people a good reason to laugh and smile.” Among the comedians he admires most is Conan O’Brien, who majored in history and literature at Harvard. O’Brien cultivated his signature brand of stupid and bizarre humor, as president of The Harvard Lampoon during his college years.
“I appreciate how the true essence of someone and their drama can be wrapped in a blanket of comedy.” Indeed, as ridiculous as Jack Mihaff might sound in The Case of the Missing Dog, Ngo also has inflected the script to ensure that the silly MO of his main character ends up having a purpose that can be appreciated as much as the hilarious lines the actors have.
In addition to Ngo, Cluff and Evanoff, the creative team includes Brian Albers, sound engineer; Joe Killian, sound design, and Aaron Asano Swenson, graphic design.
For more information, see the Plan-B website.