Ah, the narcissism of loudly sounding off in public.
These days, we have the options of Web sites, blogs and chat rooms, but back in 1987 the dominant place to proclaim outrageous opinion was radio.
Those airwaves are the setting for Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio," his acerbic portrait of a Cleveland talk-show host named Barry Champlain. He's a shock jock who has as many problems as his vocal, often disturbed callers.
Time has taken a toll on the play, particularly its phone conversations, which seem less edgy and more predictable than they did when "Talk Radio" first was presented off-Broadway two decades ago.
Fortunately, in this revival, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre, Barry is portrayed by Liev Schreiber, an intense, idiosyncratic actor who is fun to watch. "Talk Radio" could almost be a one-man show, the way the accomplished Schreiber commands the action, which is still firmly set in the late 1980s.
"This country is rotten to the core, this country is in deep trouble and somebody better do something about it," Barry rails before opening the phone lines.
Anchored center stage in designer Mark Wendland's realistic studio setting, Schreiber becomes part confessor, part confidant, part judge and part executioner. Using his mellifluous voice, the performer soothes, cajoles and quietly lacerates those lost souls who want to be heard, no matter the humiliation. Those on-air sermons contain some of Bogosian's best writing.
The callers themselves aren't nearly as interesting. Some want to be best buddies with the host, who cruelly dismissed them.Then there are the neo-Nazi creep and the pregnant teenage girl who can't find the father. Add the kid who is high on drugs and who screams his girlfriend has overdosed. The freak show goes on and on.
The stakes are high during this particular evening's high-decibel chatter because a big media company is deciding whether to nationally syndicate Barry's show. And the man perversely does his best to sabotage the deal, even inviting one of his crazy callers (Sebastian Stan) down to the studio.
Between calls, other radio personnel step forward to address the audience and talk about Barry. Director Robert Falls seamlessly handles these intrusions, which offer instant insight into the man.
"You see for Barry, talking is living ... his voice is what's holding it ali together," says good friend Stu (Michael Laurence) who serves as the man's gatekeeper, selecting Barry's callers.
Part-time love interest Linda (Stephanie March) declares, "Barry Champlain is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."
And there's the station manager Dan (Peter Hermann) who refers to Barry as his "train." "I put him on the track. I keep him on the track ... I let him go as fast as he can. The faster the better," the man says.
That speed - plus a little cocaine and a gulp of whiskey during commercials - accentuates Barry's self-destructive qualities. By the end of his time on the air, Barry is spent, physically and morally exhausted. The audience is just as tired. Ranting can be hard if not particularly satisfying work. So is listening to it.
Eric Bogosian's “Talk Radio" is a night in the life of a loathsome Cleveland shock jock who's about to go national. With Liev Schreiber playing Barry in the new production, which opened last night at the Longacre, you get why he'd go far.
Schreiber won a Tony for playing a lout in “Glengarry Glen Ross," and he gives another towering performance as a man in love with his own voice. He spills venom and, we gradually discover, seethes with self-hatred. Schreiber is dynamic, dangerous and doesn't make a single false move.
The play is built around Barry's bilious on-air jabs at callers and of fair arguments with staff at the studio, realistically designed by Mark Wendland. Whenever Schreiber is talking, "Radio" crackles with intensity.
But Bogosian's play lurches when colleagues share their insights on Barry. First, it's longtime pal and ex-deejay Stu (Michael Laurence), then put-upon producer/girlfriend Linda (Stephanie March) and then station honcho Dan (Peter Hermann), who helped forge Barry's poisonous persona.
The lights brighten before these talks, given directly to the audience. The first time you squint because it's a surprise. You subsequently squirm because the speeches break the mood and momentum of Barry's patter.
I was also disappointed by some of Barry's callers, who include an array of bigots, pregnant teens and a woman fixated on her garbage disposal. After a few exchanges, the misfits sounded cartoony and contrived. It's a misstep in Robert Falls' otherwise solid production.
"Talk Radio" ran at the Public Theater in 1987, when the line “Your fear, your own lives have become entertainment" must have seemed surprising. The shock value is gone. But it's more timely today than it was 20 years ago.
Less could well have been more, or, if you like, perhaps more might have seemed like less. Not that I wanted any less of Liev Schreiber's hypnotizingly dazzling performance in Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio."
But I could have done with less of "Talk Radio" itself - or simply more of a real play than this nowadays obvious and repetitive character study in self-hating, control-freak absorption.
For despite the energized, valiant efforts of director Robert Falls and the whole cast, quite apart from Schreiber's own deeply controlled virtuosity, the play, opening last night at the Longacre Theatre, today has the weary air of a one-trick pony, bristling with bells and whistles, stuck on a treadmill.
When first given in 1987 at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, "Talk Radio," "based on an idea by Tad Savinar," was a vehicle for the brilliant Bogosian himself.
At that time, I admired it a lot - calling it among a bunch of other nice things, "strange and important."
The strange bit is still true. But important? Well, as a play I certainly don't think it's as important now as I I think the concept behind the play - the unenfranchized demagoguery of radio and TV loudmouths, those voices in the air purporting to be the face in the crowd - is still topical. But the play's wild exaggerations and its texture have surely dated - our seducers are subtler now.
Set in a Cleveland, Ohio, radio station WTLK in 1987, "Talk Radio" suggests two hours (the play actually lasts only 100 minutes) in the on-air time of a late-night radio talk-show host, Barry Champlain (Schreiber).
With a laconic voice pitched somewhere between an anodyne and a sneer, he self-indulgently treats his despised radio audience with a stream of disdain and insult aimed at his call-in listeners, while copiously drinking Jack Daniel's and even sniffing a furtive line of coke.
Seconds before the live show, Champlain has been told by the almost impossibly Machiavellian station manager Dan (a neatly smarmy Peter Hermann) that this broadcast is, in effect, an audition to take it into national syndication.
Naturally, Champlain behaves outrageously - not only reviling his audience, which presumably likes it that way, but even personally mocking advertisers.
During station breaks he also nonchalantly handles his production assistant and occasional girlfriend Linda (Stephanie March, here an appealingly downtrodden candidate for girls' lib), his admiring sound guy, Stu (a spot-on Michael Lawrence), not to mention an on-air possible neo-Nazi bomb plot.
Then there is the wild and crazy punk-kid caller, Kent (an appropriately wild and crazy Sebastian Stan), invited to come to the station perhaps to kill this insanely provocative host in front of a live microphone and the bated-breath of listening thousands. No wonder Champlain finally has a meltdown.
The play is still, in part, entertaining, but Begosian's over-the-top exaggerations jar likelihood, and perhaps nowadays even Champlain's nihilistic lack of any specific political agenda - he's vaguely leftish, but that is only part of the persona once constructed for him by the fiendish manager - makes the play's one note sound dangerously off-key.
Falls' staging of this wordy talkfest - not only of the actors we see but also the call-in voice-overs that play a major part in the proceedings - is superb. The acting has a spontaneity that almost belies the contrivances of the script.
And nowhere is that spontaneity more vital than in the perfect, supernaturally cool, tight little bundle of anger that is Schreiber's Champlain. If there is a better actor on the stage today than Schreiber, particularly when he's looking back in angst, I don't know him.
The man's a master and even by himself makes "Talk Radio" unquestionably worth a visit. But watch out for the verbal overkill.
Liev Schreiber doesn’t merely fill a stage, as great actors are said to do. In the gut-grabbing revival of Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio,” which opened last night at the Longacre Theater, Mr. Schreiber’s presence seems to fill the air as inescapably as weather. You get the feeling that even if you shut your eyes and plugged your ears, he would still be gnawing at your senses and manipulating your mood.
Well, that’s how God is supposed to be, right? Omnipresent, invasive, all-seeing. And Mr. Schreiber is playing Barry Champlain, an abrasive radio talk show host who, as another character puts it, has seen the face of God — “in the mirror.”
In the course of “Talk Radio,” set during one eventful night broadcast in a Cleveland studio, Barry will be forced to confront another, less august image of himself, offered up by the sort of lonely, angry people who regularly phone in. What Barry glimpses allows Mr. Schreiber to provide the most lacerating portrait of a human meltdown this side of a Francis Bacon painting.
Directed by Robert Falls, who provides a solid frame for his incandescent leading man, this revival may not make a case for Mr. Bogosian’s 1987 drama as a play for the ages. The rotting United States decried by Barry looks almost wholesome 20 years later. But like the original production, which starred Mr. Bogosian as Barry, it allows its star to grab an audience by the lapels and shake it into submission. Anyone familiar with Mr. Schreiber’s stage work — whether in Shakespeare, Pinter or Mamet — will regard this opportunity as a privilege.
With “Talk Radio” Mr. Schreiber, who won a Tony two years ago for his performance in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” confirms his status as the finest American theater actor of his generation, a man capable of presenting clouded, complicated minds with searing clarity. His performance here is unnervingly physical as Barry’s malaise of the soul translates into all manner of bodily discomforts.
Yet the insight and technique that shape this downward slide are never slipshod. You are always subliminally aware that Barry’s losing control is mapped by someone who will never lose control as an artist. A good but less dazzling screen actor, Mr. Schreiber offers a balance between intelligence and instinct, both invigorating and reassuring, that is made for the theater. You know you’re in the hands of the ultimate professional.
This puts Mr. Schreiber’s Barry in stark contrast to that of the more intuitive Mr. Bogosian, who made his name as a wild and crazy performance artist and who whipped through “Talk Radio” in a roller-coaster rush of adrenaline. Mr. Schreiber’s take is more analytical, taking us through one man’s inner hell as a sort of Dante-esque tour where you’re made conscious of each level of discontent.
Mr. Schreiber’s careful lucidity shines light on inconsistencies and creaky dramatic tricks that you might not have noticed before, including the redundant use of Barry-explaining monologues by others, describing traits fully evident in Mr. Schreiber’s performance.
At the same time, though, Mr. Schreiber brings out what was most prescient about “Talk Radio.” I don’t mean its screeds about a culture in which, as Barry disgustedly tells his listeners, “your fear, your own lives, have become your entertainment.”
Mr. Schreiber’s Barry is an incisive study in a subject that has since become the stuff of endless analysis: the pathology of fame, of what happens to someone who sees himself reflected and distorted in the eyes (or in this case, ears) of multitudes. (Madonna was at the performance I attended, and it was hard to avoid wondering what she made of it all.) Being God, after all, is a big burden.
How Barry perpetuates his egomania is given bright, fast life in Mr. Falls’s production, which runs 100 intermission-free minutes. Mark Wendland’s set, which isolates Barry from his co-workers by a glass wall, ideally underscores the sense of the studio as a kind of cosmic control tower. And Mr. Schreiber’s use of microphones is the best argument ever made for the use of artificial amplification on Broadway.
Barry’s mikes become biological appendages; he uses them as if they were vocal cords. The resulting sounds — baritone purrs and snarls as Barry insults and cajoles (mostly insults) his philistine callers — gleam with daunting authority.
Then there’s Mr. Schreiber’s way with a cigarette, turning exhaled smoke into a forbidding wall. It matches the radioactive energy field of Barry’s restlessness, fueled by infusions of coffee, Jack Daniel’s and cocaine, the effects of which Mr. Schreiber registers with meticulous craftsmanship.
The same exactitude comes across in the increasing evidence that Barry is made, after all, of very fallible flesh. Such commonplace afflictions as throat-clogging congestion and a running nose do battle with Barry’s mellifluousness. His walk becomes shakier, more lopsided; his skin turns raw and mottled; tics flicker in his smooth, masklike face.
“Talk Radio” does have a plot of sorts that is intended to motivate Barry’s breakdown. His station executive (played with knife-edged corporate blandness by the excellent Peter Hermann) tells Barry that he has aroused the interest of producers who want to take his show national. This night’s performance will determine his future.
Adding to the pressure are two co-workers — a longtime friend (Michael Laurence) and a recent lover (Stephanie March) — whom he has shut out from his life and who want readmittance. But Barry’s real connection, and the source of the play’s tastiest dialogue, is with his unseen callers, embodied by a host of protean performers who become a babel of disparate voices, from a white supremacist to an obsessive cat lover. There is also the woman who is afraid of her garbage, whose monologue of fear provides a backdrop for the show’s most ingeniously theatrical scene.
One of these voices materializes in person toward the end. That’s the young stoner named Kent (the compellingly hyper Sebastian Stan), who provides the one instance when Barry is compelled to engage, instead of dismiss, another person in the flesh.
Watch how amused contempt shades into appalled dismay on Mr. Schreiber’s face as Barry listens to this babbling hedonist. It’s Dr. Frankenstein looking at his monster. From that moment Barry’s defenses are down. And Mr. Schreiber, with surgical finesse, delivers the frightening and illuminating vision of a man without his skin.
Could it be that Liev Schreiber's face actually grows stubble in the 100 minutes he plays late-night shock-jock Barry Champlain in "Talk Radio?"
How long do you suppose the actor can grind his big jaw muscles and tug violently on the front of his hair before his own head hurts as bad as the one connected to the motor-mouth he portrays with such exhausting, riveting intensity at the Longacre Theatre?
More likely, of course, such concerns are less real than they are products of the grand and dirty little illusions that this slippery, protean, electrifying nerve-center of an actor conjures as a character Eric Bogosian first created for his own dark self in 1985.
"Talk Radio" -- an Off-Broadway hit in 1987 and an Oliver Stone movie in 1988 -- was never more than a one-note performance piece with human background. And though everyone in Robert Falls' production plays that note clearly, it still is. But Schreiber plays it with the magnificent conviction of someone who believes, at least for now, that it's the only one on the keyboard.
It would be naive and a mistake to assume that Barry Champlain was a new phenomenon when Bogosian introduced him in the '80s. The character, inspired by the likes of Howard Stern and lesser disembodied loudmouths of the airwaves, had long been dragging down what we innocently believed then to be the lowest common denominator with a call-in cocktail of irreverence, false piety and a political grandiosity.
Faced now with a culture of reality-phonies and fake celebrity, in fact, we can almost view Barry as an artifact discovered in an archeological dumb-down dig.
For about half of "Talk Radio," we are captivated by the tight, deftly -presented handful of radio staffers, the true-believers and the cynic-in-a-suit who enable Barry's obsessive existence.
Eventually, alas, the nut jobs and psychos who reach out in the night for Barry get more and redundant. And, because this is meant to have more plot than a piece of earlier Bogosian performance art, events begin to happen that strain credulity. There's a visit from a wild stoner (Sebastian Stan). Barry's engineer allows a call to come in from someone they all know and, not to give away too much, that character is permitted to drag a cliche of heartstrings across the stage.
Falls, the artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, approaches the script with all the care and attention he has brought to Broadway productions of such classics as "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey into Night." But even his firm hand cannot make the play add up to more than it is.
Mark Wendland's set is a you-are-there hyper-realistic recreation of a radio station in a small market -- in this case, Cleveland -- complete with '80s equipment and dead-skin fluorescent lights. The wall of soundproof glass separates the goings-on in the studio from Barry and his desk of microphones that reach into the lonely nutcakes and psychos of the night.
During breaks in the show, other characters replace Barry to offer monologues about his meaning to them. Stephanie March -- one of the unbelievably gorgeous assistant D.A.'s in the irresistible "Law & Order" industry -- plays Barry's assistant and on-and-off lover with more pride than her gopher-groupie tasks and tight jeans imply. She talks about how he kissed "like a drowning man."
Michael Laurence, the trusty engineer who fields calls, explains the Barry he first knew in the early years. Most important, Peter Hermann, as the small-market station manager, lets us know who's really in charge of subversive radio at WTLK.
And this isn't just any night. This is the night a corporation is deciding whether to take Barry national. Upon learning this, Barry's natural instinct is to rebel. Inhaling cigarettes and Jack Daniels, cocaine and Pepto, Barry leans further into the nightmare in the other side of the mike. With a mesmerizing performance by Schreiber, we believe Barry can lean further into the nightmare of himself.
"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.