by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Robert Falls
Starring Liev Schreiber
Longacre Theatre /220 West 48th Street / 432-7200
Reviewed by David Spencer
Talk Radio isn't really much of a play, it's more a close-up character study of a man in dissolution that happens to have supporting characters to help it along, albeit they are powerless to help him. In that sense it sortakinda falls into the same box as Simon Gray's Butley (revived starring Nathan Lane earlier this season). But the revival of Eric Bogosian's intense little turn about a shock jock radio personality holds up better—primarily because it's not just about narcissism gone out of control, but about self-absorption used as a communications filter, through which information is processed, distorted, re-contextualized and transmitted as fact; and about how the cult of personality worships and enables the distortive practice. And as the shock-jock center, Barry Champlain (the role Bogosian originally played himself), Liev Schreiber gives an intensely charismatic performance of the type that creates theatrical legend, a combination of piercing, exacting laser-brilliance and unrestrained intuition.
What makes the experience even more resonant these days is, of course, the current fascination with celebrities who "go too far" in their public utterances. Though Barry's situation is a little different: Unlike Imus—or, more tragically, Michael Richards—he doesn't fatally assume that, just because society is more enlightened, and show-biz insiders can sometimes share vocabulary that crosses the boundaries of ethnicity and culture, everybody is similarly hip. In fact, Barry knows they're not. Ironically, his alchemical mix of inflated ego and self-loathing keeps him reaching, reaching for the line he dast not cross, for the shock from which there is no return, for the suicide snipe he can never take back; he can sense it, he can smell it, but no matter how outrageous he is, it stays elusive, his audience refusing to abandon their fix of insight and excoriation.
As Barry's boss, producer-girlfriend and techspert/assistant, respectively, Stephanie March, Peter Hermann and Michael Laurence provide credible foils for Barry, but alas for any supporting cast member in this show, the best any actror can do alongside a character like Barry (especially with a firebrand like Schreiber in the role) is support. As with the aforementioned Butley, if we assume professionalism, craft, competence and talent as requisites, one correctly cast actor would be as good as another. Not only does Talk Radio give them thankless (if functionally important) roles—part of its active mechanism involves the lead character's compulsion to steal everybody else's thunder. Which, of course, he does.
In a manner that makes "Nappy Headed Hos" seem like "Crowned Princesses of Nubia"...