nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 14, 2007
"Nothing's more boring than people who love you," says Barry Champlain, the invective-spewing radio shock jock at the center of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio. He's referring to the callers who flood his nightly call-in show, professing their adulation for him. They're a hodgepodge of society's outsiders and cast-offs, rambling about everything from the World Bank's negative effect on Third World countries to spoons trapped in the garbage disposal. And, boy, is Barry tired of them. The contempt in his cigarette-scorched voice is palpable as he takes his listeners down the Jack Daniels-fueled rabbit hole of his misanthropic psyche.
Ah, but one man's trash is another man's treasure. Barry's callers, such an irritant to him, are a significantly hilarious and entertaining part of the rowdy new Broadway revival of Bogosian's play. A vibrant, anything-goes energy permeates this terrific production, led by the stellar work of the six actors playing Barry's more-than-two-dozen callers. Christine Pedi, Christy Pusz, Barbara Rosenblat, Adam Seitz, Marc Thompson, and Cornell Womack, all performing backstage from soundproof booths, provide the play's heart and soul—no small feat considering that Talk Radio is directed with fantastic precision by Robert Falls, and features yet another outstanding performance by the ever-reliable Liev Schreiber.
It's Spring 1987, and we're behind-the-scenes at Cleveland, Ohio's most popular radio talk show, "Night Talk with Barry Champlain." It's a typical night for Barry, the show's acerbic and combative host, taking calls from a rogue's gallery of anti-Semites, cat lovers, and stoned teenagers (these people give the guests on The Jerry Springer Show a run for their money on sensationalism alone). That is until the yuppie station manager, Dan, announces that the show is being closely monitored by a corporate conglomerate that wants to syndicate Barry nationally. With the stakes raised, Barry's already limited supply of patience dwindles further as he gets harassed over the phone by a neo-Nazi and visited in person by an overzealous fan. Will he have enough booze and cocaine to get through the show without blowing his big chance and totally alienating his beleaguered studio crew?
Bogosian makes the callers easy to laugh at and condescend to, both of which Barry does. They represent the anti-social, small-minded dregs of society—in other words: everything Barry despises—and he rails against them and their problems. He couldn't be less reassuring or courteous. Part of this comes from the lack of respect he feels for anyone who takes his abuse. But, the audience may also get the feeling that Barry's disgust springs from the self-knowledge that he's as much of a crank as his listeners. As much as he gets a visceral thrill from his job, the fact that he needs them as much as they need him keeps him filled with self-loathing.
Of course, this doesn't stop the phones from ringing off the hook. For the duration of their time on the air with Barry, these people are stars, and they're going to hold on to that as long as they can. Bogosian and Falls keep the callers front and center for much of Talk Radio, excitedly chattering away while Barry and his crew listen, drink, smoke, or just ignore them. The actors on stage spend a lot of time behaving and communicating non-verbally, and it's a testament to everyone involved that these moments are some of the show's most gripping and entertaining.
Much of Talk Radio is carried by the versatility of its six voice actors. Pedi, Pusz, Rosenblat, Sietz, Thompson, and Womack create a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Cleveland's population in all its weird, kooky glory. Sebastian Stan makes the most of his humorous scene-stealing turn as Kent, the one caller who gets an on-stage appearance. Stephanie March, Peter Hermann, Michael Laurence, and Kit Williamson are all letter-perfect as Barry's studio crew. Watching them silently interact through the booth glass is another one of the show's many highlights (as is Mark Wendland's gloriously detailed and authentic radio station set).
Then, there's Schreiber, giving another one of his now-patented intense and riveting performances. Even though he sits center stage for much of Talk Radio, he commands the stage like a carnivorous animal on the prowl. But, he's funny and mischievous, too. Schreiber is able to communicate a side of Barry that is not necessarily evident from the script, which is that he doesn't necessarily believe everything he says. If he baits or browbeats a caller, sometimes it's just to keep the show from getting boring. Schreiber brilliantly conjures Barry's pain, arrogance, self-doubt, childish petulance, and charm (yes, his charm, however skewed it may be) without making it look like work. His performance is executed with an ease and fluidity found only in those actors at the very top of their game.
Talk Radio is that rare occurrence on Broadway these days: the lucky convergence of a master director and a talented group of actors working on a smart, savagely funny script that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Sounds like cause for celebration to me. Head on down to the theatre district and join this raucous party.