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Jess Walter’s ‘Magnificent Desolation’ gets ‘Selected Shorts’ treatment with Bobby Cannavale

UPDATED: Thu., May 14, 2020

Long before works of short fiction read by talented actors are broadcast into our homes, cars and assorted listening devices by Spokane Public Radio, they begin life in a live performance setting.

Since 1985, “Selected Shorts” has been performed before enthusiastic audiences on stage at New York City’s Symphony Space. During the COVID-19 pandemic, “Selected Shorts” organizers, like many other artist groups, have pivoted to virtual. The first “Virtual Selected Shorts” program debuted on the Symphony Space YouTube channel on Wednesday night.

Among the four stories featured in the episode titled “Best Laid Plans” is “Magnificent Desolation,” Jess Walter’s contribution to last year’s Summer Stories series.

The story centers on a seventh-grade science teacher with a troublesome student. When he calls in the kid’s parents for a meeting, he gets more than he bargained for on a couple of different fronts.

The story was read by actor Bobby Cannavale, who won Emmy Awards for “Boardwalk Empire” and “Will & Grace,” and whose film credits include Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Marvel’s “Ant-Man” movies, “I, Tonya” and the acclaimed indie comedy-drama “The Station Agent.” He read the story on a computer screen, but performed it as much as possible.

“He brought such life to that story, such humor and intelligence. And in the midst of a pandemic, the theme of the story – the importance of clear-eyed science and the difference between belief and knowledge – felt even more important,” Walter wrote in an email. “And now I want to write a movie with Bobby Cannavale as a 7th grade science teacher.”

(It’s pronounced Man-a-toe, Bobby, not Man-EE-toe. We’ll forgive the mispronunciation of Spokane’s beloved park.)

This is Walter’s third time with the “Selected Shorts” program; other stories included “Thief,” from his story collection “We Live in Water,” read by Joshua Malina of “The West Wing,” and “Helpless Little Things,” read by Denis O’Hare. It won’t be his last, he said.

“I’m writing a fourth one now, an original story for their 35th anniversary show next May,” Walter said. “I love watching an actor bring a story to life that way. I’ve always wanted to make it to Symphony Space to see them perform one of my stories, and I was planning to be there this year, but, of course, no one’s going anywhere. So I watched it in my office, then later, mixed a cocktail and watched it again with (his wife) Anne. Hopefully I’ll be in New York next spring for this new story.”

Once recorded on stage, the stories in “Selected Shorts” are eventually broadcast on the radio – the show airs on Sundays at 4 p.m. on KPBX (91.1 FM) and 9 p.m. on KSFC (91.9 FM) – and on the “Selected Shorts” podcast, available through iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

“We’re making lemonade from the lemons we got,” said host Maulik Pancholy in the introduction, “and looking at this as an opportunity for a truly intimate night, beamed directly from our homes into yours. So you’ll get to hear and see our readers, and when they look into the little cameras on their laptops, maybe it’ll feel a bit like they’re reading right to you.”

Walter’s story is the fourth read in the episode, following “Riding Solo” by Simon Rich, read by Pancholy, “Miss Laura’s School for Esquire Men” by Carmen Maria Machado, read by Emily Skeggs, and “The Meeting” by Aimee Bender, read by Allison Williams. “Magnificent Desolation” begins at the 27:40 minute mark.

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