TheatreWorks’ ‘Talk Radio’ Is Something to Talk About
The sturm und drang that swirled around talk radio in the 1980s with the introduction of radical broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and shock jocks like Howard Stern has largely been replaced by insipid talking heads on cable news. But TheatreWorks New Milford’s current production of Eric Bogosian’s comedy-drama “Talk Radio” takes audiences back to an era when the genre was just planting its roots and setting its tone on the nation’s airwaves.
Through the nostalgic season opener, TheatreWorks audiences will meet a shock jock for the record books, abusive radio show host Barry Champlain (played to perfection by Bob Lussier), who, despite a severe case of self-loathing, has no problem projecting an indomitable swagger, becoming the epitome of male bravado. And under the direction of Susan Abrams, this intense, funny production offers audiences something to talk about long after the lights dim.
When most people think about talk radio today, their minds immediately jump to conservative talk show hosts like Mr. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, but “Talk Radio” takes audiences back to the beginning in the ’80s, when listeners called local DJ’s for visceral, late night, no-holds-barred chit-chat. In this case, it’s Barry Champlain, and this shock jock is a far from cry from the conservatives of the genre. With that fourth wall gone, audiences dig into the layers of laughter, tension, sadness and fear in Mr. Bogosian’s outrageously clever comedy staged in a set evocatively designed by Ms. Abrams and lit by Richard Pettibone.
It’s 1987. Snorting lines of cocaine is as common as smoking and drinking, and we’re introduced to WTLK’s Barry Champlain, Cleveland’s controversial radio show host, whose ratings are through the roof because of his aggressive mockery of everyone who calls to express inarticulate concerns about the lousy shape they and the world are in. Barry spends his evenings gleefully insulting these pathetic souls, but, ironically, his listeners and callers love it—and so do the executives. Barry’s show has grown so popular it’s about to go into national syndication, but his producer, Dan Woodruff (an all-business Tom Libonate) is worried Barry will say something to offend the sponsors. His concern only encourages Barry to be even more outrageous.
His listeners, in some cases, are as bad as he is. Among the attention-seeking callers are a racist anti-Semite, a few drunks, an adolescent prankster (an entertaining Maxwell Alexander) who wants to meet Barry at the studio, and those who praise their motor-mouthed idol.
Champlain, at his most cantankerous, sees no reason to limit his excoriations of his listeners, and even profanely assails his supporting team at regular intervals with indiscriminate insults. The unfortunate receivers of his spleen are his producer and on-again-off-again gal-pal, Linda MacArthur (Marilyn Hart), his slick station manager Dan Woodruff, and longtime aide Stu Noonan (James Hip), who channels the callers to Barry and who, according to the irritated host, is having an off night. While they have little airtime of their own, the monologues provided by each in discussing their relationship with Barry, reveal their true acting prowess.
Fleshing out the studio crew is the cocaine-sniffing Bernie (Jacky Saltier), financial talk show host Syd Greenburg (Alex Echevarria), producer Spike (Laura Gilbert) and Dr. Susan Flemming (Beth Bonnabeau), each turning in brief performances, but offering viewers a glimpse into the strange world of talk radio. Stacy Lee-Erickson, Stuart Abrams, Bill Abrams, Mr. Pettibone, TheatreWorks president and scenic artist Glenn Couture, and Ian Abrams, as well as other cast members, take stints as some of Barry’s ridiculous, and often hilarious, callers. Rehearsals for this production must have been a hoot.
There isn’t a bad performance in the show, but to be fair, “Talk Radio” really rests on Mr. Lussier’s shoulders as the loud-mouthed, opinionated Barry Champlain. It would be too easy to put his character in a box and label him a cantankerous killjoy, but Barry isn’t just a brash old grouch. Despite his flaws—and there are many—you can’t help but sympathize with him just as much as his coworkers, or even, his callers. Mr. Lussier, making his theatrical return after a 13-year hiatus, commands the spotlight—and the airwaves—every second he is on stage. He is the heart of the production, and effortlessly captures the essence of this complex character.
Ms. Abrams, making her directorial debut at TheatreWorks with a remarkable cast, has staged a phenomenal evening of theater. Her set whisks us away to the ’80s, and the radio stations we always imagined, while her cast shares with us the highjinks behind the mic. While the language and subject matter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, “Talk Radio” is so entertaining, potential viewers should be willing to overlook its seamier elements. It is not often local audiences have the opportunity to see such a bold and edgy piece theater that will leave them with much to talk about.