Thursday, March 22, 2007

PLAY: "Talk Radio"

The last thing Barry Champlain, the bombastic and narcissistic host of Night Talk says before signing off in a drunken stupor is "I guess we deserve one another." This, after a lull of dead air and a long string of senseless calls about pet peeves and pet crushes, is a statement that is just as true as it was when Eric Bogosian wrote Talk Radio in 1987. America, wake up and smell the cup of coffee that you've been percolating for the last twenty years: Talk Radio is a piping-hot cup of condemnation and belligerent protestation, and it's a fun, raucous play that is only slightly less racy now in the light of Stern shockjocks. America, for all the political problems that you have answered with polite parody and humorous book tours, for all the growing homeless on the street -- you deserve this play, just like it deserves its apathetic audience.

This review isn't exactly a rave for the new revival of Talk Radio. We deserve it not only for the star-stud entertainment of Liev Schrieber (which is compelling and good), but also because the play has grown tame on the looming Broadway stage, turning what was a violent attack on culture into an audience friendly meditation on society. (Bogosian will be at The Public with a new rant this year: that may very well be the real performance of the season.) Schrieber is great, no doubt, but he's also pleasant and tame: his eruptions seem choreographed, and his rage isn't always abuzz. For the first seventy minutes of this hundred-minute marathon, he coasts through the glib mannerisms of a man who is both the God of the control booth and the everyman looking for God in the static sky. (He's about as sincere as Sid Greenberg, the money market consultant who fills the earlier time slot.) So while the lines are pat, and the delivery is slick, the words don't stick and there's the sense of fun over form. Not that anything's wrong with that. We deserve it. Right?

Everything is just a little too clean. Schrieber's wearing a hoodie and some stubble, but his hair is closely trimmed; the set, which places the on-air studio in the front and the backstage through a giant glass window behind him, shines in a crescendoing spotlight or throbs with a startling fluorescent beam. At one point, Barry kicks some Chinese food against the wall and it just slides off the non-stick window and it isn't long before an obsessive-compulsive co-worker cleans it up with a just a few careful sweeps of paper. Where's the danger?

Broadway has the opportunity to scare us. There's no intermission, and the play features a brilliant bomb threat and a lot of crude, frightening ideas. But Broadway keeps letting us off the hook: director Robert Falls uses lighting cues to break from the real-time presentation to allow for some testimonial asides from Barry's coworkers that really should be cut. Not only do these monologues free us from the mire of Barry's world, but they plunge us into the monochromatic characters, characters for which Michael Laurence, Stephanie March, and Peter Hermann add almost nothing to.

The segments focusing on Schrieber's communion with the callers (some very talented vocals from an ensemble that includes Barbara Rosenblat and Adam Sietz) step in the right direction; the ones with real danger (what Oliver Stone captured so well in the 1987 film) are leaps forward. By the end of the play, when Champlain is a wreck, Talk Radio is thrilling, because anything can happen. But at the beginning, too much is played for laughs, and very little separates the play from regular late night radio talk shows (except, perhaps, for how perfectly everybody is flawed).

I have little doubt that people attending Talk Radio will be entertained by the entertaining dialog and vivid, tragic collapse of its star. But I don't think Talk Radio is meant to be a fluffy performance piece, and a film should never be edgier than its live counterpoint. So America: what's on your mind? You ready to raise hell, or do you just want to hear about it?

No comments: