It’s a rare actor who can convey self-awareness without seeming self-conscious. Liev Schrieber has that gift, and he’s employed it throughout a still-young career that has often cast him as men who brazenly invent a persona (RKO 281) or else struggle to escape one imposed by outside forces (The Manchurian Candidate, the Scream films). The new Broadway production of Eric Bogosian’s 1987 performance piece Talk Radio—about self-loathing provocateur Barry Champlain, who alternately reassures and taunts listeners of his call-in program—is a perfect marriage of performer and role.
The nature of the play tamps down Schreiber’s broad-shouldered physicality, but it foregrounds another of his signature traits, his precisely modulated bass voice. For maybe two-thirds of the play’s running time, he’s seated at a desk behind a microphone, bantering with (or insulting) callers and ranting about political corruption and cultural decay. In this context, Schreiber seems not merely confined, but constrained for the audience’s safety; accordingly, rather than explode, Barry implodes. The spectacle is at once horrifying, satisfying and oddly poignant, like a small-scale, AM radio version of a Shakespeare tragedy in which a man is destroyed by the same qualities that lifted him to prominence. Along the way, Schreiber mines the vein of malignant magnetism that Jack Nicholson tapped in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, infusing sophomorically cutting insults with an “all in a day’s work” straightforwardness. (When Schreiber tells a cat-obsessed dork, “Stop hanging around the pussy and go get some,” the line’s tossed-off cadence tells us Barry knows just what he’s doing—inviting listeners to groove on his alpha dog swagger—but is way past feeling any sense of triumph.)
Like Bogosian’s performance in Oliver Stone’s film version of Talk Radio, Schreiber doesn’t just invite you to cheer Barry’s cartoonishly confident aggression and make you feel guilty for cheering and grateful for a fleeting moment when Barry makes an authentic connection with a caller (the exchange is devastatingly well-played here by Schreiber, a naturally warm actor whose roles tend to suppress that quality). Through body language and vocal modulations, Schreiber continuously but subtly reminds you that Barry’s on-air persona is false—a joint effort between Barry and his longtime producer, Dan (Peter Hermann); and that between the blathering of sycophants and dolts, the sinister taunts of an anti-semite and the bottom-line pressure of his show going national, Barry’s already crumbling facade is bound to collapse—and that Barry, being Barry, will deliver the final hammer blows himself. This version goes way beyond Bogosian and Stone’s in drawing parallels between Barry’s self-delusion and that of his callers and the competitive, greedy, easily-distracted nation they all inhabit. The film was a dynamic character sketch and a sideways lament for lost 1960s passion, about a righteous left-wing truth-teller who’d succumbed to the lures of power and ego but retained shards of his old fearlessness and could rouse himself to swing them against bigots and morons who deserved to get cut. Stone and Bogosian suggested, particularly in the flashbacks, that Barry was once an idealist—or at least a person of real human potential, a man not nearly as cynical, alienated and hollow as the present-tense version. But in Falls and Schreiber’s rendition, Barry is more of an enigma—not a man who lost touch with his true nature, but who never had one; a man who in some sense does not exist unless he’s feeding on the fears and fantasies of others—people whose own personalities are themselves constructed, artificial, fragile. Not having seen other stage productions, I can’t say if this one represents an alternative vision of Bogosian’s work or a restoration of its pre-movie intent. Either way, it’s electrifying. In Barry Champlain’s head, in his studio, in his city, in his nation, there’s no There there; although he huffs and puffs about the outrages of his time and savages listeners for not caring, Barry’s packaged brand of provocation is the continuation of escapism by other means—the verbal version of a tranquilizer that looks like an amphetamine. (An overheard snippet of ad copy promises, “Dormex lets you empty your mind.”)
There’s so much to like here that the play’s creakier elements—one-dimensional supporting characters, plentiful references to once-recent political events, and some cornball direct address monologues by supporting characters that interrupt the story’s forward motion to hang labels on Barry’s neuroses—are more distracting than they would be in a merely competent version. (When Barry’s assistant and sometime lover, Linda—played by Stephanie March—says that during their first night together, he was “like a drowning man trying to get on a life raft,” a razor-wire play suddenly turns into an outtake from Studio 60.) But these flaws don’t dull an otherwise brilliant (and unsettling) effort. Barry Champlain’s being and nothingness are reflected in the audience he cultivates and abuses. If, as Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” Barry’s show is a live feed from the underworld. There is no exit.
For information on the Longacre Theater’s production of Talk Radio, which opened March 11 and runs through June, click here. For more on the movie version of Talk Radio, read House contributor Aaron Aradillas’s article “Oliver Stone: Natural Born Filmmaker, Part 1”.