At the Longacre Theater
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Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian's (apparently pronounced Buh-GO-zhin) 1987 drama currently in revival at the Longacre, inspects and dissects Reagan-Bush-era America, exposing the sinister substratum hidden beneath the bogus sheen of "It's Morning Again!" sloganeering; and with what's his name still in the Oval Office, it's lost little of its original sting or relevancy. It's almost a one-man show, which Mark Wendland's set design italicizes—Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber, on the stage where he belongs), radio host, sits in the middle of the stage, underneath a spotlight and in between two inwardly pointed radio microphones, making it difficult to look anywhere else. Every time Barry goes to the bathroom and/or commercial, however, the secondary characters get their opportunity to deliver a monologue about how they met Barry and offer their opinions as to his mental state (apparently following the Poochie rule of drama: "Whenever Poochie's not on screen, all the other characters should be asking—'Where's Poochie?'"), but primarily Barry-the-character is developed through the telephone conversations he has with his listeners, an assortment of xenophobes, addicts, racists, promiscuous teens and sycophants—in a word, Americans. "We're discussing America here tonight," Barry Champlain announces in the middle of his show, though it's actually more like a one-sided rant than a discussion, as Barry often exercises his license to hang up on his pre-screened callers.
Barry views himself as something of a self-appointed straight talker whose purpose is to "tell it like it is"; as one caller aptly notes, he's a "prick (beat) in the conscience of this country." Other callers are not so flattering: "you think you are God," accuses one such caller bitterly, but it's Bogosian himself who's pitching Barry as a god. Or, more appropriately, in a world where God is apparently dead, the people cling desperately to mortal, terrestrial leaders, and Barry's just another ersatz deity to tell the freedom-despising populace what to think and what to do. If it's not Barry, it's Reagan, or leftist tracts about the World Bank's abuse of third-world countries, or any other ideology that promises to make people feel superior to one another by offering some iota of moral certainty. The calls to the show become like prayers, answered by an exasperated, misanthropic God with an unfailingly sardonic cynicism; Champlain has no compassion or pity for his supposed friends and lovers, let alone for the strangers calling in to his show, and he finds some way to push away or berate each and every one. Barry is the Mr. Hyde to Frasier Crane's Dr. Jekyll.
A lot of it's posturing for the sake creating good ratings and good radio, but some of it goes farther than that, a symptom of Barry's unraveling; he's a winding-down train, as one character notes, at times forgetting that it's just a job and wallowing in self-destruction. (He dabbles in the preferred drugs of the loquacious—cocaine, whisky and cigarettes.) The action is set on a Friday night airing of the show and it's a big night for Barry, as executives, considering his show for a vacant slot in their nationally syndicated line-up, are listening in. But the show's teetering and Barry blames it on his producer, Stu, who keeps putting through calls that Barry can't work with, a bunch of mild kooks and garden variety whackos. While it may be true to some extent that Stu is intentionally needling his colleague and once upon a time friend, the poor quality of the calls is primarily not his fault but that of America. No one has anything meaningful to say, a point Talk Radio makes from the get-go as it opens with a dial flipping through the AM/FM band, a sound effect that serves to express the banality, conformity and dullity of American discourse, overrun as it is with rock music and baseball games.
That substantially vacuous America disgusts Barry and it must disgust Bogosian as well, although both are also addicted to it because of a "morbid sense of curiosity," the same disorder that has prompted the popular dominance of the blogosphere in the modern era. But Bogosian saves his most caustic criticism for the youth, represented perhaps unfairly by Kent (Sebastian Stan), a stoned, pretentious bemohawked punk who functions briefly as Barry's co-host; he also stands in for America at large, thoughtlessly spouting parroted opinions he doesn't actually understand and probably doesn't even believe. (Stan's performance is notable; it's a very funny turn, and he seemed to be making Schreiber genuinely crack-up during their exchanges.) Kent shows Barry that a lot of his listeners aren't even really listening, they're just laughing at their compatriots and killing time in between buying things or getting high; so though Barry may see himself as a big-mouthed god, he is, in the end, merely the host of a popular radio talk show as ultimately meaningless as the lives of the Americans calling in to it.
As such, Talk Radio's a mean play with a bitter and hateful view of humanity, though it seemed entirely lost on the audience the night I saw it. "Everything's screwed up and you like it that way," Barry shouts in a blazing monologue at the play's finale, "you're pathetic...I despise each and every one of you," and you can't help but think Bogosian really feels the same way about the audience of tourists and bourgeois New Yorkers filling the seats. For a play that goes out of its way to tell its audience how stupid and worthless it is, though, Talk Radio elicited quite an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience who, I suppose, either wasn't paying attention or thought that the electrified Schreiber surely couldn't have meant them, as they hooted and hollered like a pack of morons in need of their own god. Sadly, you could argue that the play is a success because it proves its own thesis; the appropriate response to Talk Radio is, of course, to walk out, but then of course you'd not only be wasting a hundred dollar ticket but also missing out on a criticism well worth hearing. As long as you're not too haughty to actually hear it, or too offended to enjoy it.
Directed by Robert Falls; Written by Eric Bogosian; Set Design by Mark Wendland. Starring Liev Schreiber