Dead air burns money.
The host of the local program “Night Talk,” Barry Champlain is violently brazen and notoriously uncontrollable, and national media giant MetroScan wants to syndicate him nationally. His wild behavior is sexy and enthralling, and they want to buy his show. Tonight, they are listening. Tonight, a depleted and angry Champlain revolts and breaks all rules of radio law to maintain his independence. In the end, he boldly lets silence reign for a full minute and half. He burns money, and MetroScan loves it.
Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio,” is a liberalist rant about the ethical crisis of American society: Churches are gambling, 80-year-old grandmothers are being assaulted and George H. W. Bush is vice president. In his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, Bogosian channels his rant through radio host Barry Champlain (the charismatic Liev Schreiber DRA ’92), who takes calls from listeners and, after exploding their logic, exposes their hypocrisy. While “Talk Radio” had the potential to question the role of radio in American public life, the well-crafted production is disappointing because it assumes that star power and technical finesse can make a mediocre play into captivating theatre.
The play equates Champlain to God in an insultingly explicit manner: “All those people become part of his soul.” The listeners call in to confess, he interrogates them, they repent, but nothing changes. So the play traces the existentialist anguish of a God who, after seeing how degenerate and hopeless America is today, crumbles under the burden of free speech.
The action unfolds in a complacently designed radio studio. Champlain’s table stands alone downstage under clouds of cigarette smoke and unforgiving fluorescent lights while the producers and editors work behind him, barricaded by a sound-proof wall with glass windows. The wall of gray opaque fiberglass towers over the stage, dooming Champlain’s solitary desk. With the exception of the wall and the occasionally evocative lights by Christopher Akerlind, the design by Mark Wendland limits itself to a television aesthetic.
Schrieber’s voice carries the play. Between the gulps of whiskey and lines of cocaine, Schrieber shuffles through callers and narratives, discarding banal confessions in favor of the unsettling stories. For instance, Chet — whose voice grates like sandpaper — calls in and dooms Barry, warning him of the bomb package that he sent. While the “Night Talk” producers coil in anxiety in the editing room behind Barry, he deliberately takes Chet’s package and tears it open with the utmost care.
There is no bomb. Instead, Champlain pulls out a dead rat and a Nazi flag. With relaxed and ironic joviality, Champlain drapes the flag over his shoulders and prances around victoriously. His humor and emotional distance make him invincible.
Director Robert Falls does a fine job of illuminating the snap, buzz and whirl of the radio studio. It is a place where time is governed by commercial breaks, phone calls and 60-second countdowns to “On Air.” This abrasive velocity is contrasted with nostalgic and overly-sentimental soliloquies from the producers and editors of “Night Talk,” in which the characters shed light on the mysterious personal history of Barry Champlain, radio phenomenon. Paradoxically, Champlain’s personal narrative is absent, revealed only through these soliloquies which are supposed to leave us mourning for Champlain, who compromises his self for the sake of his radio character.
This easy narrative tactic, coupled with the cheap moment of suspense instigated by the bomb, exemplify how desperate “Talk Radio” is for action. Instead, the performance only laments the Sisyphus-like struggle of Champlain, the enlightened, frustrated liberal trying to shake the American public to life. “I guess we’re stuck with each other,” he utters at the end, resigning to the futility of his pursuit.
The piece pretends to be about radio. It could have questioned how radio gods such as Champlain influence the construction of oral national histories. It could have investigated how the medium of radio differs from the medium of theater. Most importantly, it could have developed the friendships and romances among the cast of characters instead of leaving those stories for dead like the 80-year-old grandma.
Consequently, “Talk Radio” confirms the modest liberalism of the retired white New Yorkers in the audience. They come to see “political” theater on Broadway to feel engaged in social discourse, but “Talk Radio” does little more than regurgitate what they already think.