“Enter angry” might be the stage direction that introduces the riveting Liev Schreiber as Cleveland shock jock Barry Champlain in “Talk Radio.” “Kill ’em all,” he snarls, wishing for a gun to mow down bad drivers. Many performances would have no place to go but down from that kind of boiling rage. But Schreiber proceeds, over the course of a 105-minute single act, to fuel the character’s dyspeptic ferocity with bourbon, coffee, cigarettes, Pepto-Bismol and scalding contempt, ratcheting it up by agonizing degrees until the armor of his godlike superiority cracks to reveal the self-doubt and disgust beneath. Or is all that just part of Barry’s performance too?
Originally conceived by Eric Bogosian as a solo performance piece in 1985, then developed into a multi-character play that premiered at the Public Theater two years later, “Talk Radio” evolved further in the 1988 Oliver Stone movie, incorporating elements of the story of Denver radio personality Alan Berg, who was murdered by the Aryan Nation in 1984.
All three of the drama’s incarnations were born out of an era when radio phone-in shows provided a more concentrated channel for the kind of hard-line opinion that now ricochets freely around the blogosphere.
But the blistering views aired in the play are no less relevant 20 years later. The moral and cultural void against which Barry — and by extension, Bogosian — rails is perhaps an even greater factor in the current voyeuristic climate, in which Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears trump concerns of war, politics and eco-angst. The bleak cynicism behind the play now seems prescient in its observation of a media in which news has been co-opted by entertainment and personal crises are fodder for public consumption.
The mesmerizing hold of the central character — and Schreiber’s performance — is all the more remarkable given that the play is dramaturgically less than rock-solid. A work this draining needs to be a breathless hour-and-a-half at most, and having secondary characters deliver direct-address monologues is an unresourceful way of sketching in the abrasive talk jockey’s back-story. But as both an actor’s tour-de-force and a stinging cultural analysis, “Talk Radio” offers plenty to chew on.
Set in Mark Wendland’s fascinatingly detailed studio, with the windows of the control booth revealing the uneasy spectator world of tech staff and management beyond, the action chronicles a single broadcast of “Night Talk With Barry Champlain.” The night in question is the last before Barry’s show gets promoted from local airwaves to national syndication, meaning corporate overlords and sponsors are paying close attention.
“Make it a hot show tonight,” advises station chief Dan (Peter Hermann).
“This country, where culture means pornography and slasher films, where ethics means pay-offs, graft and insider trading, where integrity means lying, whoring and intoxication,” offers Barry as a gentle wake-up to his unseen callers. “This country is rotten to the core, this country is in deep trouble. … And somebody better do something about it.”
While the constant queue of callers attests to the controversial show’s popularity, Barry is tough on his listeners regardless of where they stand. Concerned about the Third World? You’re an uninformed liberal. Pre-operative transsexual? Boring. Outraged about the drug problem? Blame the CIA. Pregnant and alone? Your own fault. Girlfriend overdosed and turning kind of blue? Cue Miles Davis.
Cutting off his lonely, insomniac callers mid-sentence at the first sign of inanity (or some other quality he can’t work with), Barry positions himself as either a target for their hate or a comrade for their concerns, then almost invariably throws whatever they’re pitching back in their faces. Humiliation and abuse are his trade.
In his productions of plays like “Death of a Salesman,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Shining City,” Robert Falls has shown a peerless ability to modulate intensity. That skill is again evident here though it’s mildly undermined at times by the play. When Christopher Akerlind amps up the unforgiving overhead fluoros and the diabolical smoke cloud clears momentarily to allow other characters to step forward, some of the tension created by Barry’s rants is sacrificed. These interludes pull you out of the moment.
Producer Stu (Michael Laurence) regards Barry as a primal doctor, “holding the scalpel, cutting away the lies.” Barry’s assistant and emotionally bruised sometime girlfriend Linda (Stephanie March) reveals his deep anxieties but also the futility of trying to connect with him.
It doesn’t help that these actors are unable to match Schreiber’s incisiveness. But the problem is mainly that the information we glean is generally less interesting than what we learn simply from watching Barry.The way Schreiber’s leg begins twitching while waiting to cut off a dud caller is just one of countless manifestations of Barry’s bristling nervous physical and mental energy. Despite all the vicious hostility and cold indifference of his dialogue, it’s arguably the nuances he brings to the act of listening that make the performance so hypnotic.
Best of the monologues is Dan’s, delivered with ice-cool knowingness by Hermann. His is the only speech that illuminates not only an aspect of Barry but something of himself. He comes across initially as just a slick suit, but in his own quiet way, his wits might be a match for Barry’s. He molded the talk host’s edgy persona and pushes Barry’s buttons to get what he wants, regardless of the cost to his star.
“Like trains in and out of a train station, talent comes and goes,” observes Dan. “You miss one, here comes another. There’ll always be another train. And trains wear out, they get derailed. They crash.” Unlike Barry, Dan also is smart enough to remind himself it’s a job, nothing more.
The production’s other razor-sharp performance is from stage newcomer Sebastian Stan as stoned young punk Kent, a caller invited by Barry into the studio. With his vacant eyes and moronic, cackling laugh, Kent is a scarily accurate personification of what Barry calls “the future of America.” Summing up his simplistic idea of success, Kent says, “So, if you’ve got some cash, and you’re cool, you get to have a model.”
It’s at this point when the outside world comes in — at the same time his personal and on-air lives blur when Linda poses as a caller in a clumsy attempt to reach out — that Barry breaks. Faced with evidence that all the disturbing, tragic, frightening topics discussed on his show are merely entertainment, he crumbles. Physically ill and spent, he surrenders to despair and, most unthinkable of all, dead air.
Or is the exhaustion a standard by-product of his own hunger for fame? Maybe it’s just another night’s work.