“Shock jocks.” We’ve heard that phrase assigned to people like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony before. They are radio personalities who have become famous for telling it like it is. They’re often a little too honest and a little too offensive for most.
While the Broadway show Talk Radio doesn’t focus on shock jocks, it does pay homage to the phenomenon that no matter how controversial media personalities can get, one thing holds true: We simply can’t stop listening.
For $32, students taking Dr. John Sullivan’s Contemporary American Literature class caught a sneak preview of the show before it premiered at New York City’s Longacre Theatre, and had the opportunity to ask questions of the cast and crew. The low admission price – reduced from $80 – was worth every penny.
The show, which runs a little more than 90 minutes without an intermission, has just one act and one set. It follows a not-so-typical night in 1987 at WTLK, an all-talk radio station in Cleveland. Soon, the audience meets the station’s most notorious host: Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber), a loudmouthed, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking and brutally honest disc jockey.
Barry’s show “Night Talk” consists of talking to (and more often than not, hanging up on) callers who range from crazed environmentalists to transvestites to pregnant teenagers.
His radio show takes a few unexpected turns, including a drug-addicted punk named Kent (Sebastian Stan), who persuades Barry to let him come to the station for a visit and a threatening call from an anti-Semite.
Despite how much Barry berates his callers on-air, and no matter how many times his remarks to them are dripping with sarcasm, they always come back for more. Barry recognizes this power, but as the show goes on, it becomes both a gift and a curse.
Without a doubt, Schreiber’s performance carries most of the show. He is deliciously sarcastic and absolutely ruthless, making sharp, hilarious comments throughout the show. (“I’ll be gentle,” he tells a first-time caller in a mocking tone.)
Schrieber is also able to balance the show’s comedy with its more tense moments as Barry begins to recognize the watered-down, lifeless culture around him. It’s a powerful moment when Barry, tears streaming down his face, realizes that everyone loves hearing about the world’s problems, but no one cares about solving them.
As strong a Schreiber’s performance was, Talk Radio would be nothing without the callers. Approximately seven actors portray more than 30 different characters during the show. They are never seen, only heard, as they call in from all over the Cleveland area to talk to Barry about the most ridiculous of problems. These actors, using just their voices, bring hilarious characters to life – including a man in love with his cat and a woman who is deathly afraid of her garbage disposal. These characters were so effective and so funny that one could spend hours just watching Barry take calls.
In the midst of phone calls, Barry’s pseudo-girlfriend Linda (Stephanie March of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), his manager Dan (Peter Hermann) and his assistant Stu (Michael Laurence) each get a brief moment to say their piece about Barry. Linda talks about her troubled relationship with him; Stu recalls his and Barry’s former days as deejays at a local Akron, Ohio station and Dan reveals how he lured Barry into joining WTLK. Although these monologues are a little abrupt, they give viewers a more solid connection to Barry and allow the show to be more than just a comedy about radio callers.
Talk Radio does have a few weak moments, mostly found in a few lines of cheesy dialogue. One can’t help but inwardly groan when characters say things like “the faster they go, the harder they fall” or “Barry can sense something deeper in people.” These lines of dialogue are a bit cliché at times, but certainly don’t spoil the overall experience.
Although the show relies heavily on the actor playing Barry, Talk Radio went slightly overboard on promoting its revival. The show’s poster is simply Schreiber’s headshot with the title splashed across it. Audience members applauded for a solid 45 seconds when Schreiber first appears, which is more distracting than it is respectful. While Schreiber has proven his prowess on film, television and now Broadway, he has become the crutch for a show that can certainly stand on its own.
Most of us weren’t alive when Talk Radio was written, but its messages are as strong today as they were in 1987. We all have the same irrational fears and weird quirks, and every now and then, we all need someone who tells it like it is to shake things up a bit.
Talk Radio will be performed Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.