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'Talk Radio' gripping at TheatreWorks

By David Begelman, NewsTimes


Eric Bogosian's drama, "Talk Radio," premiered originally in The Public Theater in 1987, with the author in the lead role.

A film adaptation directed by Oliver Stone was released a year later. The show was the first to commemorate what by now is a media institution, the "shock jock."

The crusty contingent of know-it-alls from Joe Pyne and Morton Downey, Jr. to today's Howard Stern, Don Imus, and the political spinner, Rush Limbaugh, cut reputations as talking heads with less than courteous demeanors.

In fact, their discourse is routinely in the sphere of being outrageous. They push the envelope of decency in their repartee, and all too often lose advertisers, are fined, fired like Imus -- before being rehired by another network -- or get physically assaulted, like Pyne.

In the Bogosian play, callers-in to Cleveland's sole talk radio station, WTLK, rarely get the opportunity of winning in the game of one-upsmanship they play with the radio host, Barry Champlain (played impressively by Bob Lussier).

In real life however, the odds are often reversed. Pyne once quipped with Frank Zappa, "I guess your long hair makes you a woman," only to receive the Zappa riposte, "So I guess your wooden leg makes you a table."

The TheatreWorks production of "Talk Radio" is directed by Susan Abrams, and continues the playhouse's tradition of well-mounted productions. This one is distinguished by every one of its nine performers putting in arresting portrayals.

While Lussier's performance holds center stage, it is enhanced by a skilled supporting cast, including an assisting broadcaster, Stu Noonan (James Hipp), a girl friend doing double duty as studio assistant and girlfriend, Linda MacArthur (Marilyn Hart), a coke-head who puts in a later personal appearance at the studio, Kent (Maxwell Alexander), Bernie (Jacky Saulnier) and Spike (Laura Gilbert), two other studio hangers-on, Syd Greenburg (Alex Echevarria) and Dr. Susan Fleming (Beth Bonnabeau), both of whom are cast as alternate radio broadcasters. Dan Woodruff (Tom Libonate) is the hilarious producer of Barry's show.

He divides his time between arranging for Barry's program to be syndicated by Metro Wave Broadcasting and having attacks of nerves over whether his shock jock is too irreverent to land this promising gig.

Five of the cast do double duty as voices of the show's callers --a parade of personalities as long as it is colorful, from "Chet," a neo-Nazi who threatens to bomb the studio, to "Denise," who has a phobia about her kitchen garbage disposal unit. Calls from others are terminated on the spot when Barry surmises they are not worth the effort of an extended conversation.

Barry, it turns out, is as vulnerable as many of his callers. His role as shock jock eventually shows signs of a meltdown.

In increasingly voluble waves of indignation, he inveighs against "this country in deep trouble," because "culture means pornography and slasher films," and "ethics means payoffs, graft, insider trading," and where "integrity means lying, whoring and intoxication"-- and so on.

The broadcaster, it seems, has metamorphosed into someone barely distinguishable from the characters he savages on a routine basis.

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