Many years ago, when Don Imus began his radio program, his worst crime was to ridicule the sponsors and skewer religious pundits. Never did his insults, however, rise to the abusive level of current day shock-jock, Howard Stern.
But as abusive as Stern is, he can't compare to Barry Champlain, the fictional talk show host in Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio." This sharp-edged play was originally produced in 1987 at Joe Papp's The Public with the playwright in the lead, but was recently revived on Broadway starring Liev Schreiber -- and he'll talk your breath away.
The script, delivered with machine-gun precision, is almost irrelevant in that it is generic shock-jock splatter. But Barry is anything but generic, and that's due entirely to Schreiber's tour-de-force performance.
As the icon du jour, he has us riveted as we listen to Americans listen to themselves: the kids who make the prank calls; the 3 a.m. crazies who love their cats more than people; the lost souls who think that a DJ who gets paid to answer phone calls and rip people to shreds truly cares what they think.
Listener calls become more desperate as the night wears on, but no one notices that the DJ is, too. Like the ventriloquist who becomes the dummy, Barry Champlain becomes the voice; when the microphone is off, the conversations are over, but not the chain-smoking, the endless slugs of Johnny Walker, the occasional snort, and the gulps of Pepto-Bismol.
This is a dangerous man bent on self-destruction, and we never find out why. The only clues we get about Barry's personal life come from the people around him, and they're not terribly insightful, blinded as they are by inexplicable hero-worship. Astute about human nature, and sure of the people he works with, the more rejecting he is, the more they want him.
As we watch Barry crumble onstage, one can't help but wonder if Schreiber is improvising with each listener's call. Either way, his performance is thrilling, though it's hard to imagine that he can hit the nail on the head with that script eight times a week.
During short breaks in the talk show, which give him a much-needed chance to take a few slow breaths, we are addressed by Stu, his call-screener, who follows him from station-to-station like a loyal puppy and explains why he loves Barry; and by Dan, the station manager, who truthfully acknowledges that "Barry is my train." In other words, his moneymaker.
Linda, his assistant and sometime girlfriend, played by the lovely Stephanie March, helplessly tries to connect with Barry by calling in as a listener and telling him about her painful relationship. His response to her emotional pleas, however, are dismissed as not worthy enough for the audience, or Barry's head-phoned ears. He tells her, "kick him out of your life and get a new vibrator."
So one-by-one, all those who care about him move out of his way, leaving him alone to finish up. For with all the calls, and all the people around him, Barry knows he's ultimately, "just a voice." But to the theater audience, it's the sound of his voice that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Watching Schreiber dig to the depths of his soul to deliver such a stunning portrayal is what will keep this play sold out, and probably get Schreiber, at the very least, a Tony nod.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½It allows its star to grab an audience by the lapels and shake it into submission. Anyone familiar with Mr. Schreiberï¿½s stage work ï¿½ whether in Shakespeare, Pinter or Mamet ï¿½ will regard this opportunity as a privilege.....confirms his status as the finest American theater actor of his generation"
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Schreiber is dynamic, dangerous and doesn't make a single false move. '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. "
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "Despite the energized, valiant efforts of director Robert Falls and the whole cast, quite apart from Schreiber's own deeply controlled virtuosity, the play today has the weary air of a one-trick pony"
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "More pungent than profound, "Talk Radio" offers a bold showcase for volatile acting, and Schreiber is terrific...It's Schreiber the customers pay to see, and he knocks Bogosian's spitball out of the Broadway park. "
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Even his firm hand (Robert Falls) cannot make the play add up to more than it is." & "A mesmerizing performance by Schreiber""
ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "Although Champlain is consummately acted by Schreiber, and the play tautly staged by Robert Falls, 'Talk Radio' hardly keeps us on the edge of our seats." & "Schreiber creates a vivid portrait of an intense, driven man teetering on the edge. He needed to create a monster."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Aided enormously by a terrific performance from Liev Schreiber, Mr. Falls's welloiled production sees to it that this infuriating opportunist in truth-teller's clothing remains wickedly entertaining company."
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "The show's bravura lead role is an object lesson in the allure of antipathy, acted out in consummate detail and with overarching satanic grandeur by Schreiber, who, ...here affirms his indisputable stardom." & "Kudos...above all, Robert Falls's splendidly detailed direction."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "Accomplished Schreiber commands the action" & "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" & "Ranting can be hard if not particularly satisfying work. So is listening to it. "
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "As both an actor's (Schreiber) tour-de-force and a stinging cultural analysis, 'Talk Radio' offers plenty to chew on."
External links to full reviews from newspapers