In Talk Radio, radio host Barry Champlain has hollowed himself out. Years ago, he was a small-time Akron DJ blessed with the gift of gab and a certain "sixth sense" about people. Once a listener was on the phone, Champlain could get anything out of him — outrage, tears, secrets, even a murder confession. That was in the early '70s, right around the time the new world that his generation had reached for began resembling a used-up version of the old one it had hoped to replace. Years later, in the 1987 of Eric Bogosian's play, it appears that those compromises have caught up with him. Barry Champlain is in trouble.
Talk Radio, as a distillation of that trouble, is not a narrative-driven show. It has more of a story than Mosaic Theatre's last production, Thom Paine, but less of one than Oliver Stone's movie adaptation of Bogosian's script (which incorporated elements of radio host Alan Berg's murder at the hands of neo-Nazis). It's just another night on the job for Champlain, now Cleveland's biggest talk-radio star. His producer/girlfriend reads him the day's headlines, AC/DC's "Back in Black" announces his arrival on air, and then the calls start coming. That's the play.
The dozens of callers — voiced by Stephanie Simon, Noah Levine, Beverly Blanchette, Johnny Mineo, Erin Joy Schmidt, and George Schiavone, in a series of throat-bending performances that'd make Hank Azaria jealous — are, in a way, the real stars of Talk Radio. Together, they paint an exhaustive picture of the place America has become in the long years since Champlain's first small-time broadcasts, and it's not a picture Champlain likes looking at. Nobody would.
When Champlain's sideman, Stu Noonan, played by Pete Rogan, tells us about first encountering Champlain years before in Ohio, he describes a man with an intense passion for his work — an idealism that rubbed off on Stu and has kept him around to this day. By the time the play opens, that idealism is gone. There is no passion in actor Paul Tei's Champlain, only an inchoate rage that he long ago gave up the hope of voicing. When callers want to talk about the sorry state of world affairs, Champlain is willfully contrary. Maybe he'll agree with them; maybe he won't. Either way, he'll come out of it sounding smart, bemused, and confident — and, should his callers strike him as especially pathetic, his audience will have the opportunity to delight in the hapless callers' offhand public executions. A fey, mannered-sounding man, throat constricted with unspeakable loneliness, calls in to sing the praises of his pet cat. Champlain accuses him of bestiality. Another caller says his girlfriend has OD'd and is turning "kind of blue." Champlain cues Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The song he selects, "So What," reflects his general attitude toward his callers and their problems.
This helps explain why a guy like Johnny Mineo's character — whom I will not name, so as to avoid giving away a surprise — is so interested in him. In Talk Radio, Mineo plays a spiky-headed punk deeply in love with Champlain's on-air personality. He is, in a sense, a genuine punk rocker: dishonest, dirty, and, when he somehow appears in the studio during the middle of Champlain's broadcast, obviously adept at the old punk trick of obliterating the barriers between performer and audience. He screams, makes rude noises, and says offensive things just because he can. But he's a poser all the same — sucked in by the star system, in awe of Champlain's fame and more interested in snapping his picture than his neck, despite the contempt Champlain demonstrates for everyone but himself.
Thoughtless aggression and meanness accumulate as the play progresses, so reflexive on the part of both Tei's Champlain and his unfriendly callers that it seems more like artifice than the real deal, just like Mineo's nihilism. Everybody's going through the motions: callers with personal problems inviting his scorn, just because he's famous or just because it's their job as a listening public; callers with agendas reading manifestos; creepy little Nazis behaving as they suppose creepy little Nazis are supposed to behave. If anything, they're more committed to the charade than Champlain. At least it's new to them. No matter who's on the receiving end of the line, Champlain's the one phoning it in.
And not just at work. As actor Dave Corey's station-exec Dan Woodruff points out, it's important to remember that even a job in radio is just a job, meant to be left behind at the end of the shift. But the country of disparate and increasingly arbitrary values, leaping nightly from the phone lines and into Champlain's brain, is pernicious. When his girlfriend, Irene Adjan's sweet, sad Linda, tells him she waited half an hour for him the previous night at the unspecified locale of a date, Champlain's response is, "See, that's you. Me — I woulda left." Later, Linda observes: "Barry Champlain is a nice place to visit. But I wouldn't want to live there."
Neither would anybody, and this appears to be the night when Champlain will realize it, when the meaninglessness of the national blather filtered through his switchboard will prove too much to bear. Tei is an actor blessedly averse to histrionics, but as the pressure mounts and as phone call after phone call fails to deliver even a shred of meaning or synthesis, his face, so often the calm eye of every storm, seems to cave in on itself. Swilling Jack Daniels, smoking endless cigarettes, conspicuously sniffling after his frequent bathroom breaks, he at last lapses into the only sane response possible in the face of the roaring phone lines: silence.
Barry Champlain is clearly in trouble, but of what sort? The question is not clearly answered in Talk Radio's 100 minutes, and that's to the good. Champlain and Bogosian probably couldn't tell you themselves. The premature fin-de-siècle malaise that Champlain sucks out of the airwaves is as diffuse as the airwaves themselves. It's all around, screaming from the speakers. "We've got a serious problem down here," it says. Lacking a response, Champlain cues "So What."