Joel Jones, Karl Kenzler, Ron McClary and Jeffrey C. Hawkins in a scene from “Three Wise Guys” (Photo by Marielle Solan)

There’s a delightful new holiday distraction in store for fans of radio plays, theater and the stories of Damon Runyon. In fall 2023, Hear Play Audio Theatre released the audio play Three Wise Guys, inspired by two Runyon short stories, just in time for Christmas listening. The script by Scott Alan Evans and Jeffrey Couchman was originally produced Off-Broadway by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, and has now been adapted and directed by Evans for the audio realm. It’s free to listen to, though Hear Play welcomes donations that will benefit its performers.

“The play premiered in 2018 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row,” Evans told me. “We kept as many of the original cast as we could — but, for the audio version, since a few of the actors in the Off-Broadway production played multiple roles, we added several actors to the cast so that all the voices are distinct and individual.”

Karl Kenzler and Victoria Mack in the TACT Off-Broadway production of “Three Wise Guys.” (Photo by Marielle Solan)

Hear Play was created during the COVID pandemic of 2020-22, when theater artists were trying to stay creative in a time of shuttered venues.

Here’s how Three Wise Guys is billed: “Set in 1932, the play follows three New York guys (a bootlegger, a petty thief, and a former safe cracker) each preoccupied with his own particular problems and none of whom are especially fond of the season. They find themselves in Good Time Charley’s speakeasy on West 46th Street on Christmas eve. As the bootleg liquor flows, the guys agree to band together and take to the road to avoid all the hubbub of the holiday. Besides, it seems notorious racketeer Heine Schmitz is after them, and they have to get out of town. Fast. Over one long life-changing night, the three guys make some big decisions while inadvertently spreading holiday cheer around and about to one and all everywhere they go.”

Listen to Three Wise Guys here.

Joel Jones, Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Karl Kenzler, Ron McClary in a scene from “Three Wise Guys” Off-Broadway. (Photo by Marielle Solan)

Evans added, “One of the enormous advantages of working with TACT was our repertory company of brilliant and highly versatile actors. In fact, the play was created with several of these actors in mind — Karl Kenlzer as Blondy Swanson, Jeffrey C. Hawkins as Dancing Dan, John Plumpis at Heine Schmitz, Ron McClary as Murton and Dana Smith-Croll as Bitsy Allbright. Victoria Macks repeats her stage role as Miss Clarabelle Cobb in the audio adaptation. When we were thinking about opening the play up for this audio version I, of course, thought of actors from the company to come and join us. That was how we included Nora Chester and Jack Koenig in the piece, both of whom were TACT company veterans. We also brought on a few actors new to us Joel de la Fuente, who is an amazingly gifted actor to play The Dutchman, and the very talented Jasmine Rush to play the chorus girl, Muriel O’Neill.”

Hear Play’s first production was the gripping non-fiction audio drama The Triangle Factory Fire Project, by Christopher Piehler and Scott Alan Evans, also adapted from an earlier TACT stage production. It uses documentary accounts to dramatize the New York City workplace tragedy that led to safety reforms. You can listen to it on the Hear Play website.

Both plays are also licensable as live theater productions. Here’s the link to licensing for Three Wise Guys.

Dana Smith-Croll in “Three Wise Guys” Off-Broadway. (Photo by Marielle Solan)

When Scott Alan Evans was a TACT producing partner, the company included my plays Alabama Story and Hollywood, Nebraska in its NewTACTics staged reading series. Evans later directed Hollywood, Nebraska in Wyoming and Indiana, and directed a reading of my play Two Henrys at Hudson Stage Company. He continues to be a freelance director. He recently directed Margo Hammond’s new play Horseshoe Empire — about the charismatic and notorious former mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hauge — in Jersey City.

TACT produced readings, special events and full productions for 25 years between 1993 and 2018. You can check out its archive of productions, readings and special events here.

I got curious about Hear Play’s history and Three Wise Guys, which shares some DNA Guys and Dolls, the musical based on two stories by sports writer, fiction writer and journalist Damon Runyon (1880-1946). Scott Alan Evans answered a handful of my questions, the week before Christmas 2023.

Three Wise Guys draws on two Damon Runyon short stories?

Scott Alan Evans: Damon Runyon wrote several Christmas stories. Three Wise Guys is based on two of them: “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” and “The Three Wise Guys.” Both of these stories were originally written for magazine publication and both are set in the 1930s in the Broadway world we have come to know so well of Runyon’s — the world of bootleggers, bookies, speakeasies and chorus girls. In the play of Three Wise Guys, we’ve interwoven the two stories and conflated a couple of characters to make a single narrative. And we added quite a bit to fill it all out. We really wanted to be true to Runyon’s voice and honor his wicked sense of humor and irony. Much of what makes his work so indelible is his distinctive writing style and his delightful use of slang and argot, much of it based on the talk of the day, but much of it also of his own invention.

Damon Runyon

What conversations did you have with the Damon Runyon estate for Three Wise Guys?

Scott Alan Evans: The evolution of the play is a rather long story actually. Originally I was approached by someone representing the estate with several Runyon short stories that all took place around Christmas and was asked if I might be interested in creating a piece based on them. I was excited about the idea, as I had always been a fan of Runyon’s work. I did a treatment based on three of the works. But as we looked more deeply into it the question of who actually held the rights to them all, things got a bit murky. Rights can be complicated like that, especially when entire libraries of material are sold and resold to bigger and various holders. Often the entities don’t even know exactly what properties they own. We ended up working with the Runyon estate attorneys and secured the rights to two of the stories — happily the two most important stories to the concept. (The rights to the third story “Palm Beach Santa Claus” weren’t available.) We then went back to the drawing board and crafted a script from the two works. The estate gave us free rein and, happily, they loved the final product.

When you and co-author Jeffrey Couchman were first creating Three Wise Guys” for its 2017-18 premiere, what were your specific wishes for the play — the “do’s” and “don’t’s”? What were you avoiding or leaning into?

Scott Alan Evans: We really wanted to capture what we felt was the essence of Damon Runyon’s style and humor and be true to his characters and world.  There have been many different adaptations of his work, some of them very successful, some not so great and we tried to learn from as many of them as we could. One of the main challenges any adapter has to grapple with Runyon is how to handle the voice of the unnamed narrator, who is often a part of the action and provides much of the perspective and the distinctive humorous irony. Also we wanted to capture the distinct Runyon lexicon and patois that adds so much flavor to his writing. We discovered that we had to be very judicious with how and when we leaned into it, as hearing it and reading it on a page are two very different experiences.

“Three Wise Guys” playwrights Jeffrey Couchman and Scott Alan Evans on Runyon Way, near Times Square.

How is the audio play different from the stage play? I’m curious about what tweaks you had to make to create a “radio drama” version of Three Wise Guys.

Scott Alan Evans: The stage production featured projections and puppetry and lots of physical elements that helped move the story along. Obviously with the audio version that wasn’t possible. So, we actually moved a bit closer to the Runyon style and created a narrator for the piece, who helps us set the tone and fill in some important details. And, happily for us, we were able to bring on board Steve French, a wonderful actor and voiceover artist of some renown, to fill that role. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we wanted each of the characters to be identifiable by their distinctive sound, so we eliminated most of the doubling and brought in several new actors to join the cast. The original cast included seven actors and we had eleven for the audio version.

Triangle Factory Fire Project was your first audio presentation. How did it come about, and how did you choose Three Wise Guys to be the followup audio play?

Scott Alan Evans: Like so many artists during the lockdown, I was trying to figure out what I could do to stay working and creative. I was speaking with my good friend, Daryl Bornstein, about this. Daryl, who is a brilliant sound designer, technician and musician, had worked with TACT on many productions over the years and was a member of our adjunct company, which was composed of designers, composers, stage managers, etc. As we were talking about the state of things, and how unsatisfying many of the Zoom productions we were seeing were, we wondered what we might do that could harness the power of Zoom, while minimizing its weaknesses. That’s when we thought we’d see if we could find a way to use Zoom as an audio recording platform. Daryl figured out a way to do the recording and capture a high quality in such a way that we could then edit it all together and make a satisfying audio experience. We first looked at The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a play I wrote with Chris Piehler in 2004. We assembled a cast, shipped out mics and equipment to those who needed them and recorded in the spring of 2021. The final edit finished and dropped a few months later.

Victoria Mack and John Plumpis in the Off-Broadway world premiere of “Three Wise Guys.” (Photo by Marielle Solan)

The experience was really satisfying, so we thought we’d do more and we officially started Hear Play Audio Theatre to carry on. Since we had just premiered Three Wise Guys in 2018 it was on our minds and we thought it would be a good next offering. Also, since I was a co-author, we knew we could get the rights!

Hear Play is a full theater-of-the-imagination experience, right? Complete with Foley-style sound effects?

Scott Alan Evans: I created Hear Play Audio Theatre with a nod to “Ear Play,” the radio series from the 1970s. At Hear Play we approach radio drama as an art form, creating dramatic theatrical podcasts that utilize the power of the spoken word along with the latest sound design techniques. The productions have original scores and tons of sound effects. The scores for both Triangle and Three Wise Guys were written by the phenomenal Joseph Trapanese. Joe worked with TACT a good deal when he was starting his career and is now living and working in L.A. and scoring hit films and TV shows. For Three Wise Guy, I worked with Joe to revisit the score and add quite a bit more music to support the audio environment and heighten the holiday feel.

Tech-wise or as a dramatist, what did you learn between “Triangle” and “Three Wise Guys”?

Scott Alan Evans: It’s been such an interesting process adapting these works for the ear. They each required different approaches. Three Wise Guys was the more challenging by far. There is a good deal of physical action in the piece, so on a basic level we had to make sure that what was happening was clear. We also adjusted some of the dialogue to keep the style consistent while not being overwhelming. Some of the Runyon slang can be a challenge on first hearing so we needed to balance that with also being true to the source material. I had to really be conscious to listen with the ear of someone who is coming to the material for the first time.

Jeffrey C. Hawkins and Ron McClary in “Three Wise Guys.” (Photo by Marielle Solan)

The project is donation-supported and profits go to the actors?

Scott Alan Evans: We wanted this work to be accessible to all, so all the offerings of Hear Play are free to the public.  We do ask that those who can support the work by making a donation.  The money goes to seeing that the material is available for all and profits are shared by of all the artists.

Your series announcer for Hear Play shows — introducing the plays — is TACT alumnus Simon Jones, known for the original “Brideshead Revisited” series and the current series “The Gilded Age.” Are there more Hear Play productions coming? Any chance you may tackle public domain classics or more new works?

Scott Alan Evans: Yes, we are thinking about next steps, but with the pandemic pretty much over — for the time being? — and folks getting back to work again and traveling, gathering people and momentum has been a challenge. But we are looking at a few projects including some new works.