Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 11, 2007
Talk Radio written by Eric Bogosian. Created for the stage by Eric Bogosian and Tad Savinar. Directed by Robert Falls. Set design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Richard Woodbury. Cast: Liev Schreiber, also starring Stephanie March, Peter Hermann, Michael Laurence, Christine Pedi, Barbara Rosenblat, Adam Sietz, Marc Thompson, Kit Williamson, Cornell Womack, and Sebastian Stan.
It's only then that broadcasting shock jock Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber), something of a cross between Howard Stern and Art Bell, realizes that life is about more than words, words, words, and becomes lost in the pleasure and pain of his own speechlessness. As Barry struggles to describe the worldview his outward persona masks, he finds his mouth locked shut. For nearly a minute, the lack of dialogue or other stage sound forces your eyes onto Schreiber's face, awash in a dozen contradictory emotions, as he tries to regain the voice that is his livelihood. His simultaneous bemusement, despair, rage, and helplessness allow this simple, silent scene to say far more than the rest of the play's dialogue can muster.
It doesn't hurt that this is also the only time the play defies expectations rather than playing into them. Talk Radio, in which Bogosian originally starred at The Public Theater 20 years ago, is otherwise heavily parodic and satiric, tilting head-on with the mindset of the people who would listen (or, God forbid, call) a show like Barry's. Previous discussions on the two-hour, after-hours show on Cleveland's WTLK station, we learn, have focused on orgasms, an inspirational Vietnam vet, and bad experiences with the police - topics that don't contribute to the important national discourse, but instead avoid it.
Bogosian spends every one of the play's 100 minutes proving this point, focusing almost exclusively on Barry's show, Night Talk. (A morals-challenged financial advisor and a know-it-all relationship expert make brief bookending appearances.) But for Barry, it's just an ordinary night, except that the syndication company Metroscan is listening in to determine whether Night Talk will fit in on the 357 stations it controls. So Barry's on his best worst behavior when fielding calls from the likes of transsexuals, animal lovers (if not quite of the PETA variety), a 16-year-old unwed mother, and a neo-Nazi psycho.
In between the calls (and occasionally during), he has his own problems to deal with: fixations on cocaine and alcohol; passive-aggressive relations with his producer girlfriend, Linda (Stephanie March); the insistent station manager Dan (Peter Hermann), whose agenda is now limited to pushing through the Metroscan deal; and a covertly hostile call screener Stu (Michael Laurence), who either doesn't have much to work with or is intentionally torpedoing Barry on his most important night.
Bogosian attempts to flesh all this out with monologues for each of the major supporting characters about what Barry means to them: For Linda, he's "a nice place to visit," though she wouldn't want to live there; Stu has sacrificed his own ambitions to ride Barry's train to success; and Dan sees Barry as a meal ticket he'll feel no compunction about discarding when the time is right. If these attempts at characterization don't detract from Barry's quest to survive the increasingly taxing show, it also never appreciably enhances our understanding of Barry's psychology. The speeches feel more like the stuff of softball celebrity profiles than probing personal analyses of a polarizing public figure.
As directed by Robert Falls, this production doesn't cut much deeper - you're still forced into making a leap of faith in believing that what Barry says and thinks matters, even when it doesn't. Despite those monologues, the ancillary characters get so little play that it's hard to take them seriously, let alone keep them straight at times. Hermann has a few moments of gleaming-eye deviousness that suggest a more interesting history between him and Barry than Bogosian scripted, but they're fleeting. Plot developments occurring as Barry pushes everyone farther and farther away are as generally incidental as they are ineffectual; the one-two-punch climax, in which a distraught Linda calls into the show to salvage the relationship and Barry invites a colorful caller (Sebastian Stan) into the studio, is exceptionally underwhelming.
He seems to discover everything anew, from the annoyance and frustration Linda displays to his ongoing battles with the folks behind the glass (Mark Wendland designed the meticulously detailed station set) and even a dead rat wrapped in a Nazi flag. His subsequent goose-stepping about the studio while draped in a Swastika is the evening's funniest moment, as well as the most telling about how Barry views his work.
If Schreiber makes you understand that Barry is a boy masquerading as a man, the production's most diverse cast members do still more to reveal the real Bogosian. Christine Pedi, Christy Pusz, Barbara Rosenblat, Adam Sietz, Marc Thompson, and Cornell Womack provide the voices for each of Barry's callers as though they were phoning right from the stage during a club act at Don't Tell Mama. If what their characters have to discuss is often absurd, their overexaggerated impersonations insist you not take one of them seriously. They're in on Bogosian's joke, which is that all these people are jokes and deserve to be treated as such. Even if that's true, it doesn't make Talk Radio any funnier or more recognizably real.