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Defender of the Faith

Talk Radio

Liev Schreiber completely inhabits the role of an abusive radio show host in the highly entertaining revival of Eric Bogosian's 1987 play.

By New York City
Liev Schreiber in Talk Radio
(© Joan Marcus)
Liev Schreiber in Talk Radio
(© Joan Marcus)
In the highly entertaining revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, Liev Schreiber proves conclusively that, despite a severe case of self-loathing, a man can walk with indomitable swagger. He's giving this illustration of male bravado as the abusive radio show host Barry Champlain, a role Bogosian himself played seemingly inimitably when his comedy-drama opened at the Public Theater 20 years ago. Now, it's a part that Schreiber completely inhabits, just as he indisputably declares himself a Broadway leading man to shout about and reckon with.

When Schreiber won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor two seasons back as the lubricious real estate broker Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, the tall, craggily handsome actor also occupied a prominent, front-and-only-slightly-off-center desk, but he had to share that space with others. This time, he's pretty much on his own, talking fluidly into a microphone -- one to the left of him and one to the right -- with the same resonant baritone voice that also helps qualify him as one of the country's most important Shakespearean actors.

Champlain, smoking and drinking and occasionally snorting coke lines, has been racking up the WTLK-Cleveland ratings by aggressively mocking everyone who calls him to express their generally hyperactive, inarticulate concern about the lousy shape they and the world are in. Among the most reviled callers are the ones who check in to praise their motor-mouthed idol during the 100 intermissionless minutes that cover the night a large syndicate announces interest in taking Champlain's show national.

Among the other attention-seekers is a racist and anti-Semitic menace who brings to mind the assassin of controversial talk-show host Alan Berg, on whose life the play is loosely based. Also dialing is adolescent prankster Kent (a hilarious Sebastian Stan), who shows up in-person at the tenebrous studio, which Mark Wendland has evocatively designed and Christopher Akerlind has lighted.

Because Champlain -- an example of existentialist man at his most belligerent -- sees no reason to limit his droll excoriations, he also profanely assails his supporting team at compulsive intervals. The recipients of those censorious, indiscriminate barbs are his producer and sometime gal-pal Linda MacArthur (Stephanie March), oil-slick slick station manager Dan Woodruff (Peter Hermann), and aide Stu Noonan (Michael Laurence), who channels the callers and who, according to the irritated host, is having an off-night.

Since Bogosian's early days as a monologist, he's been interested in focusing on characters who represent civilization's large population of bottom-feeders. Champlain, though clearly possessed of -- and possessed by -- a brilliant mind, is an outstanding example. Bogosian gives him stupendous attitude and marvelous dialogue with which to express it.

At the same time, and more's the pity, Bogosian hasn't constructed around Champlain a play that fully pays off. While backing away from having the character suffer Berg's fate, Bogosian doesn't find a stakes-raising substitute. Before Champlain's air-time concludes, he has alienated his co-workers and dissed his panting callers big time, but the eye-opening view of himself that he gets doesn't seem earned.

Champlain fascinates only to a certain point; yet the play often fascinates, thanks both to the inspired Schreiber and Robert Falls, who has directed the production solidly. Falls has created convincing radio-studio life. Whether Champlain is on the air or off during commercials, the comings and goings in the upstage control booth, offices, and green room are non-stop without ever being distracting.

Falls also clears the stage for the monologues that March, Hermann, and Laurence deliver as telling biographical background on Barry. Although these speeches are ever so slightly awkward, the actors deliver them with appealing realism. Posies also to Christine Pedi, Christy Pusz, Barbara Rosenblat, Adam Sietz, Marc Thompson, and Cornell Womack, who supply the caller voice-overs. (Sound designer Richard Woodbury deserves some of the praise for their effectiveness.)

Since talk show hosts of the Champlain ilk don't seem to be as prominent as they were a couple decades ago, Talk Radio may initially feel dated. Yet brilliant but deeply confused men still roam the planet in many capacities, as Schreiber and Bogosian make cogently clear.


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