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Talk Radio: Eric Bogosian's dark, compelling one-act explores the populist medium from hell

Eric Bogosian's lacerating one-act Talk Radio, currently in a compelling production

at the West-Mon Repertory Theater (through December 18), leaves the odd impression of being both topical and dated. The theatrical outgrowth of solo performance pieces by Bogosian beginning in the early '80s, and first produced for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in 1987 ("created for the stage" by Bogosian and Tad Savinar), the play has a sensibility -- its radical skepticism -- that is powerfully contemporary. But its literal subject, the live radio talk show -- like most pop culture formats -- has been increasingly self-devouring; what had once been cross-country, open format exercises in bughouse populism have steadily become corporate networks for a national right-wing agenda, or else specialized self-help advice shows on home repair, gardening, love and money.

So Talk Radio represents an already fading era, when the talk-show hosts opened the airwaves to whomever and whatever, and then pushed, prodded and insulted callers and listeners to waves of ecstatic indignation. The host of fictional Cleveland radio station WTLK, Barry Champlain is an edgy, nearly burned-out radio veteran whose popular Nighttalk show is about to "go national." On the verge of his greatest success, Champlain has one more night to impress his loyal local audience and the national sponsors. Filled with both arrogance and self-loathing, he alternately seduces, berates, goads and degrades his callers, courts and abuses his staff and the sponsors, even risking that most mortal of radio sins -- "dead air." Judging from his producer's reaction, the likely result of all this personal and social irresponsibility is painfully predictable: even more stupendous ratings.

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The play takes the approximate shape of a single evening's Nighttalk show, as Champlain fields calls on a variety of subjects: transvestism, ecology, Third World economies, the Holocaust, nuclear protest, teen pregnancy -- the range of topics is in direct proportion to the shallowness of the discussion. Champlain's forte is outrage, and whenever the conversation threatens affability, he simply insults whoever's on the line, elevating the temperature of "controversy." To an anti-Semite, he recounts melodramatically an obviously invented tale of a tearful visit to Dachau; subsequently congratulated by a black caller, he sneers "Jews hate you" and arrogantly cuts him off. His operator's job is to filter the calls, feeding him those that promise fireworks -- when they fail to ignite, he simply cuts away, hunting for the next shocker and during the breaks cursing his assistants for incompetence.

Although Champlain's (and Bogosian's) cynicism is eventually wearing, his audio snapshot of human folly is unnervingly recognizable. More surprising is the success of Talk Radio on a purely theatrical level. Although its conception and set are static, and it trails wisps of its beginnings as stand-up performance, the play takes fire from its variety of calls and the dramatic tension they create (testimony, I suppose, to the appeal of the talk-radio format itself). Additional drama is generated by bits of convincing radio "interaction," as Champlain's audience tracks down a runaway lover, or he invites a dimwitted teenage fan down to the studio. The only other breaks from the radio format are brief soliloquies from Champlain's colleagues, painting him as a media-created solitary who seems to live only through his radio voice: "Barry Champlain is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

At the center of this spiritual maelstrom is Tom Vaughn as Champlain in a brooding, imposing performance that dominates the small theater. He's not particularly histrionic or gestural -- mostly glaring eyes, tight lips and the rigid demeanor of a trapped and hopeless animal. But his voice -- full of aggressive radio projection, yet underlaid with a driven bitterness that runs through all of Champlain's patter -- is the audibly precise focus of the whole production. Vaughn sounds, appropriately, like the play-by-play man from hell.

Talk Radio is Vaughn's "show," but he is amply supported by Dennis Turney as the beleaguered operator Stu Noonan, Mike Tuchin as the smug and imperturbable producer Dan Woodruff and Vicki Weathersby as the sympathetic but skeptical assistant Linda MacArthur. Dwight Michael Clark is distressingly funny as Kent, the young and ignorant fan who lies his way onto the show and becomes a momentary apprentice in Barry's guild of public abuse. Finally, as the faceless callers who feed Champlain his straight lines and provide collapsing matter for his black radio hole, special praise is due to Kim Breckon, Brian Hill, Cynthia Saxon and Curtis Lee Weeks.

 
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