Did anyone doubt that Liev Schreiber would give a sensational performance in “Talk Radio?” The grittily garrulous play, first produced by the Public Theater in 1987, has been more or less identified with its author/performer Eric Bogosian. Bogosian also starred in the 1988 film version, which expanded the scope of the play. Schreiber may not be known, as is Bogosian, as a monologist fascinated with the murkier and more depressing areas of man’s nature. But as one of our finest actors he has played enough classic characters such as Macbeth and Othello to demonstrate how far his dramatic exploration of human behavior could take him. He brilliantly deploys the caustic wit and relentless vitriol that personifies the unsettling radio host Barry Champlain.
In “Talk Radio,” under Robert Falls’s intense-to-a-fault direction, Schreiber achieves a characterization that literally vibrates with rage-empowered impulses. For approximately 100 minutes, Barry, the host of a radio show called Night Talk, insults, belittles, humiliates, intimidates, and mocks his callers. It is, however, surprising, how little we find out about this man during the course of his oral onslaught. We do know that he likes to play the role of a condescending God; that he is a chain smoker (I hope Schreiber gets hazard pay for this); makes it clear up front that he unequivocally believes, “This country is rotten to the core;” and that he has a low tolerance for stupidity. Most of the play’s pleasures come from watching Schreiber’s body language, notably his tremulous leg, as he carefully baits and unconscionably tags his callers as the emotional and intellectual losers that they most assuredly are.
During the dramatized radio program, members of the technical staff break the fourth wall for monologues of their own to explain a little about Barry, but they don’t add up to very much. They are time for Barry to take a break from his rant. Peter Herman is steely and controlled as Dan, the station’s head honcho, who knows just how to manipulate Champlain and thereby make his carefully molded and cajoled product more marketable. Stephanie March is excellent as Linda, Barry’s personal assistant and occasional lover. Her persuasive spiel reveals her frustrations with Barry’s fractured persona and the utter pointlessness of their on and off intimacy.
For those who like listening to rudeness delivered with wit, truth laced with insensitivity, and self-righteous attitudinizing conveyed with a hatred for all humanity, watching and listening to Schreiber is a rather stunning experience. You may be both sickened and amused by his snide responses to virtually everyone who calls in to the show. Being sickened in the course of one evening by an ardent anti-Semite who sends him a Nazi flag and a dead rat in a box, a wacko teen strung out on drugs, and a pregnant girl who has evidently has been abandoned by a lover who lives in a pick-up truck, is enough to send him swigging down a bottle of Pepto Bismol. There is a scarily on-target performance by Sebastian Stan, as Kent, the wasted and imbecilic punk who gets invited to the studio by Barry. In this day of small casts, there are a number of peripheral characters who come and go from the studio to bring authenticity to the action.
You have to admit that conversing with liars and psychos is one helluva way to make a living, and Barry, as seen through Schreiber’s palpable disdain, seems particularly adept at it. Without sparing anyone’s feelings, he proves that almost everyone who calls in is a certified lunatic. Nevertheless he keeps his radio audience happy and coming back for more. Barry is so successful that he is told by his boss that he is being syndicated.
His rudeness and contempt for those who call in somehow energizes him almost as much as the cocaine he snorts during commercial breaks. Schreiber’s performance may be persuasive and magnetic as dramatic fiction, but in real life you would most likely switch stations rather than listen. Or would you? Mark Wendland’s recreation of a radio studio in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s is authentic enough even if the behavior going on inside is just a bit over-the-top.
“Talk Radio,” Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th Street. $36.25 to $96.25. Telecharge 212-239-6200.