Have you ever driven late at night somewhere not necessarily near home and turned on AM radio? Chances are there will be a talk show, or four, on the dial. In the wee hours when most people are asleep, you discover a whole other world – alien encounters, a lot of politics, and callers who have more personal problems than a week's worth of Oprah. Some rant and rave, some confess and cry, some taunt or lambaste. Most just to want to connect or stave off their insomnia for a few more minutes.
In Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama Talk Radio, Barry Champlain (Kevin Daugherty in a stereophonic performance) is a talk show host in Cleveland. His Night Talk program has gotten the attention of the big syndicate guys. They think he'll be the One. They want to take his show national. They don't know Barry.
His on-air persona is corrosive, to say the least. When callers bore him, he cuts them off, hanging up without batting a gimlet eye. He's heard too much over his career from haters, sad sacks, cat lovers, and losers. He's been threatened by right wing loons, and a mysterious package dropped off at his desk plays a dramatic role in later scenes, adding a heightened touch to the already freighted emotions across the phone line.
He browbeats his fans, his repeat callers, and those who stumble upon his late night talk show. Even those who praise his soothing voice and prickly manner get the brushoff. He's not changing his style to go national. He is what he is, and the local ratings prove it. But what exactly is he?
A sham, a fraud, as his producer Dan (Bill Giffen) says to us? Has his life been so easily manufactured as the one Dan invented for him when he began? No service in Nam, no eco-warrior living off the grid in Alaska, no public crusader? Amid the calls, more bits of personal info are filled in by Gal-Friday Linda (Adina Owen) and long-time engineer Stu (Shawn Havranek), who gave up his own career on radio to be Barry's behind-the-scenes maestro. The triple composite is not pretty.
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If Barry's a shock jock, he's also shell-shocked, unable to commit, obsessed with his job, and not big on compassion. He deals in tough love with his callers. When drugged-out Gen-Xer Kent (George Knapp in a mind-blowingly definitive performance) asks for help with his overdosed girlfriend, Barry shouts “liar” and hangs up. He, too, can smell a fraud. Only when others more concerned call in does he relent and ask Kent to come down to the station to meet him. On some type of high, Knapp finesses the play with a slacker's nonchalance and giddy instability. This guy is so full of life he runs off with the play.
Others in the cast play multiple phone-ins: Curtis Barber, Seth Cunningham, Melody Gray, Robert Jamerson Jr., Donna Bella Litton, Anjana Menon, Sean K. Thompson. John Patterson's tiered set is strategically used for the callers, which adds visual excitement; and the radio station with its plate glass partition behind which the engineer's toil is handled deftly.
It's a kaleidoscope of defeated people, vignettes of the damned and the depressed. There's some hope mixed in, but Barry's not really there to appreciate it. He's checked out long ago, all that remains of him is his voice in the middle of the night.
Talk Radio continues at 7:30 pm, Monday and Thursday; 8 pm, Friday and Saturday through September 8 at Dirt Dogs Theatre Company at the MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org. Pay what you can. Suggested price $25.