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Set in the spring of 1987, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio is not quite a period piece, yet the idea that there is anything remotely raw in the rants of its main character is almost barmy. In the waning years of the Reagan dotage, a radio disc jockey who ridiculed the ignorance of his callers, even as he provided them a place to air their crackpot opinions, might have seemed edgy. But by the time Oliver Stone turned the material into a movie, in 1988, the profession of shock jock was already losing its novelty.
If Bogosian’s story of Barry Champlain, host of a night-time call-in show on a Cleveland radio station, no longer serves as a reflection of the Zeigeist, it must now, more nakedly, be evaluated as a play.
The exposure, in this Broadway production directed by Robert Falls, does the piece’s reputation little good. Talk Radio sags as drama because no person in Champlain’s life – not his station manager, not his producer, and certainly not his doormat of a girlfriend – is allowed adequate opportunity to oppose him. Barry is a Jack Daniels- doused, coke-crazed, nicotine-gnarled fiend, but his imperious opinions are generally allowed to stand. And when Bogosian sets up a moment for some push back – a teenage prankster crashes the studio, and is allowed to share airtime with Barry – the chance isn’t exploited.
If the play is a disappointment as maturely developed scenemaking, it provides a crack Broadway vehicle for Liev Schreiber as Barry, just as it did originally for Bogosian off-Broadway two decades ago. Schreiber pivots between microphones like a Turk sucking on a double hookah. His Barry swats away fools with a mastery of interruption that only American TV’s Judge Judy can currently rival. Best of all, Schreiber’s baritone is amplified into reverberations that show off his magnificent vocal gift, which has frequently been harnessed for Shakespearean kings but which works better in contemporary settings. Christine Pedi, who voices several of the heard-but-not- seen callers, is also wondrous.
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