SF Sketchfest Review: Selected Shorts – Too Hot for Radio, 1/26/18

by Carrie Kahn on February 4, 2018

Jane Kaczmarek reads a story by Katherine Heiny at Selected Shorts: Too Hot For Radio at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre on January 26, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau

As a longtime listener of Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, a short story reading radio program broadcast locally on KQED-88.5 on Saturday nights, I was thrilled to see that Sketchfest was bringing the show to the Festival for the first time ever this year. What made the live performance even more special and fun was that it promised to offer stories “too hot for radio” – ones that, for various content reasons couldn’t be read over the air during the regular program, but could be read to a non-broadcast, live theater audience. As an added bonus on top of that, as is typical with Selected Shorts, the stories would be read by famous, well-regarded actors. For “Too Hot for Radio” we were graced with Arrested Development regular and comedian David Cross, actors Lance Reddick (The Wire) and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (an alumni of Larkspur’s Redwood High School), and actress and Symphony Space regular reader Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle). The live show, held on Friday, January 26th at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, didn’t disappoint, and more than lived up to my expectations.

Local comedian Aparna Nancherla served as our host for the evening; she introduced each reader, and described a little bit about each story we would hear, explaining just what made it “too hot for radio” (broadly, the stories, she told us, were too “salacious, profane, or vicious” for radio). The first reader was David Cross, who read a story by Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret called “Jetlag.” The story was first published in Hebrew in a collection called Anihu, and its English version was released in 2004 in a collection titled The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories. This particular story, Nancherla advised us, contained a “foul-mouthed little person” and detailed “the sex lives of stewardesses.” So warned, we settled in to hear Cross read, with fervent expression, a weird and surreal tale about a man on an airplane who is prodded by a person he thinks is a little girl, but who may or may not instead be an adult, porn-obsessed dwarf, to make a move on a receptive flight attendant. In the midst of this oddness, the passengers are told the plane is intentionally going to crash. The story was a little too fantastical for my tastes, but Cross delivered it with such ardent enthusiasm that I found myself absorbed in the bizarre tale in spite of my misgivings.

Next up was Lance Reddick, with a story that, we were warned by Nancherla, had a character named “Balls” in it, a sole advisory that intrigued us. “Benefactor” is by New York writer and Colgate University English Professor Greg Ames, and was published in his recent (2017) collection Funeral Platter: Stories. In the story, Parker, a restless, middle-aged man looking for meaning adopts a starving (adult) artist, in much the same way hungry third-world children are “adopted” by wealthy Western benefactors. When the artist, Jerry, falls into some trouble, Parker wants to relinquish his responsibility, but is told by the “Adopt-an-Artist” agency that he has to honor his commitment. A sharp satire of middle-age malaise, artists with attitude, and societal expectations, Ames’s darkly comic story benefitted tremendously from Reddick’s impassioned reading, which included a range of distinct and funny voices for different characters.

Our third reader was Jane Kaczmarek, who regularly reads on the Selected Shorts radio program, and for good reason. She has a terrific, pleasing voice, and her comedic acting experience makes her a natural for bringing a short story to life (and she even handled a brief missing page snafu with graceful aplomb). “Cranberry Relish,” a story from Washington, D.C. author Katherine Heiny’s 2015 collection Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories, contains references to sexting, Skype sex, and real sex, Nancherla advised us, so Kaczmarek had some tantalizing material with which to work. She did a stellar job, modulating her tone and expression to match the emotions of the story, which concerns a married woman whose lackluster affair with a man she meets on Facebook ends when he leaves her for a woman he meets on Twitter (“She’d had bad sex with a man who sometimes wrote ‘defiantly’ when he meant ‘definitely’,” is one of Heiny’s sharper lines). Kaczmarek delivered such lines with fitting poignancy and conflicted emotion, and her empathetic reading made me want to rush out and buy Heiny’s collection to see if her other stories were as urgent and vivid as Kaczmarek made this one seem. This story, and Kaczmarek’s reading of it, was my favorite of the four.

Finally, acclaimed actor David Strathairn read Richard Bausch’s story “Billboard.” Nancherla’s content advisory for this piece was that it contained liberal use of the “f” word, as well as mentions of vengeful arson. So warned, we felt like this story would end the evening with an appropriate bang. A prolific novelist and short story writer, Bausch is a creative writing professor at Chapman College in Southern California, and this story was published in his 2003 collection The Stories of Richard Bausch. Another story with an infidelity theme, Bausch’s tale gives us a depressed man whose brother has taken up with his fiancé. Consumed with jealousy and anger, Larry resolves to burn his ex’s house down, and a co-worker, Susanna, tags along with him. Strathairn conveyed well Larry’s divergent emotions, bringing depth and nuance to Bausch’s terse but effective prose. Strathairn even broke into song for a moment in which Susanna briefly sings. Despite its bleak premise, the story ends on a somewhat optimistic note, and Strathairn was able to evoke the contrasting elements of sorrow and hope with a forceful eloquence.

Sketchfest’s maiden voyage bringing Selected Shorts to the stage was a great success; featuring engaging actors and compelling stories that, despite the program’s name, were often more heartfelt than titillating, the show deserves a regular spot on Sketchfest’s annual schedule. Here’s hoping we will find it there again next year.


Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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