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Garrison Keillor loses his dexterity in Radio Man

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Radio Man, Garrison Keillor's self-indulgent, sort-of autobiographical new play at the History Theatre, is a mess. If you want a fix of Keillor's folksy satire, A Prairie Home Companion is available free of charge on the radio. This slow-as-molasses tale with stilted dialogue doesn't shed much pleasing light on Keillor's life, work, or enduring popularity.

Veteran actor Pearce Bunting (best known as bootlegger Bill McCoy on Boardwalk Empire) channels Keillor from his mussed hair to his red shoelaces, while evoking the radio host's signature halting delivery and Scotch-smooth tone.

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When Bunting is in full Keillor mode -- sharing moments with the musical acts, reading ads for the fake down-home sponsors, sharing the latest info from Lake Wobegon -- Radio Man falls into the charming rhythms of A Prairie Home Companion. Satisfaction is fleeting, however, when it becomes clear that the original would have been much more fulfilling.

The on-air radio segments make up only one-third of the play. A second strand brings the various characters to life, from tongue-twisting private eye Guy Noir to cowboys Dusty and Lefty. These particular moments aren't all bad -- Peter Thomson has an exhausted, down-trodden charm as Guy -- and they don't overstay their welcome.

That's not true of an extended riff from Lake Wobegon. It deals with a recently deceased man, his grieving family, and the wild oats he sowed. As a storyteller, Keillor can weave characters, plot threads, and ideas like a maestro. As a playwright, he lets it all fall apart.

In place of the usual tone of wistful nostalgia mixed with twists of unexpected darkness, we get scenes from a bad Eugene O'Neill play, with unlikeable characters arguing over events we don't give a whit about, from the man's infidelities to the bag of peas he was clutching as he died.

The third plot finds our host's radio show under threat from sponsors and audience members who don't take kindly to the gentle ribbing -- at politicians and bachelor farmers -- that makes up so much of the show. So producers bring back a show runner from the glory years who happens to be an old flame.

But Sandra Struthers Clerc's stiff and robotic portrayal of Mary Louise acts as a wet fuse. It doesn't help that Keillor has loaded her with terrible dialogue. There's a lot of that in Radio Man.

Much of this feels like a retread of the 2006 Prairie Home Companion movie. There, however, the guiding hand of Robert Altman caught Keillor's excesses and welded the elements into an entertaining whole. The film also never feels stage-bound, even though 99 percent of it takes place within the confines of the Fitzgerald.

Yet this play's staging is functional at best. It's often unclear if what Keillor is saying is going over the air, is happening backstage, or exists completely in his mind. Director Ron Peluso allows the play to meander like a late-summer stroll. But a shortage of highlights makes it an unlikely walk to remember.

IF YOU GO:

Radio Man History Theatre $15-$45 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday Through October 26