Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Broadway shows are not all music, flashy sets and elaborate costumes. “Talk Radio” is one of those subtle, musical-number-free shows where the message sinks in after the final, silent scene plays out.
Starring Liev Schreiber as a shock-jock in Cleveland, the play revolves around his final local broadcast before he goes national.
Set in the ’80s, before national syndication was as easy as satellite radio, Schreiber’s character, Barry Champlain, is an angry, bitter man who has a short temper with both callers and co-workers.
Champlain ridicules his many callers, ranging from a neo-Nazi caller who threatens to mail a bomb to the studio to a duller-than-dirt caller who complains about the traffic. (The latter caller provokes a rage-laced shout directed at his producers: “I’m getting a fuckin’ gun. Kill them all!”)
Addicted to profanity and cigarettes, Champlain is obviously not amused by himself and spends some time waxing existentially both on- and off-air about his position as the much-worshipped, yet cringingly acerbic, radio personality. “I despise each and every one of you,” he says at one point during his broadcast. “The only thing you believe in is me.”
Champlain is not afraid to get emotional, exploding into a number of outbursts throughout the play. At times he appears to be near-total breakdown, making the play feel even more like a taboo look into the production of his broadcast.
When asked how Schreiber is able to keep the emotions up for every show he attributed “Jack Daniels and an eight-ball.”
While the play focuses mainly on Champlain sitting behind a microphone, responding to callers (voiced by actors offstage), there are times when the other people around him get a chance to share their feelings.
Monologues from his assistant and occasional lover/”girlfriend” Linda (played by Stephanie March of “Law & Order: SVU”) and station manager Dan (Peter Hermann) serve to put focus on other characters, though you don’t get to know them much beyond the monologues.
Each character describes what Barry means to him in an emotional turn directed at the audience, showing that though people can’t figure out why, they’re obsessed with him.
At times Champlain’s outbursts seem frighteningly real and the show is far from a happy look into the life of a radio personality. However, it does well to delve into the psyche of a talk host about to take his angry rhetoric to the masses, particularly now, at a time when radio hosts have, in some cases, gained celebrity status and even notoriety. (Take for example the backlash against radio’s Don Imus for his insulting descriptions of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.)
“Talk Radio” offers audience members the chance to take a second look at what it’s like to go national when “going national” was a very unusual event.
The play’s message is summed up in one of Champlain’s tirades: “I’m here to lead you by the hand through the dark forest of your own hatred and anger and humiliation. You’re afraid of the boogeyman, but you can’t live without him. Your fear, your own lives have become entertainment.”
The play, written for the stage by Eric Bogosian (also an actor who can currently be seen on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), has been on-stage before, wherein Bogosian played Champlain.
It was also made into a film, though the two endings are quite different. Bogosian, however, chose not to use the alternate movie ending. “We were doing a revival of the play,” he said in a post-show interview.
“My primary interest is the individual and how he’s trapped,” Bogosian said of the play and its near-obsessive focus on Champlain’s character.
“Talk Radio” runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, so don’t expect to make any Milk Dud runs.
The intimate setting also means that getting there a little late, while not disruptive to the show, is a bit unsettling. However, it does add more gravity to the show, offering a voyeuristic view into what starts to feel like a real radio broadcast.
“Talk Radio” is at the Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street in New York. Student tickets are available for $26.25 at the box office two hours prior to curtain. Purchasers are limited to two tickets per student ID.