Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Radio static

The Broadway revival of Talk Radio has everything going for it -- great cast, great set, great lighting, costumes and sound design -- everything except a great script.

If you've read any reviews, or any press materials, or if you've seen the poster, you know the main attraction here is Liev Schreiber's performance as nighttime radio host Bary Champlain. And he is pretty terrific. But he's not the only reason to see the show. Sebastian Stan's turn as punky prank-caller Kent is not to be missed, and even if you're not a faithful SVU fan, you'll admire Stephanie March's and Peter Hermann's work, especially since they spend nearly the entire play onstage. The voice actors in the cast, who spend most of the play offstage, are also wonderful -- much better than their material. In fact, everyone in the cast is better than the material, which means the play works really well for the first hour or so and then runs out of steam.

Bogosian's script develops the characters only up to a certain point, and then they just spin their wheels, and all that's left to keep you interested is the social satire, which isn't especially sharp or insightful. I wondered, as the play (and the real-time radio show that is its subject) began, how a real drama could be built within the confines of the set and structure. Unfortunately, the script doesn't rise to the challenge it sets for itself; instead of allowing us to learn about the characters through their interactions with each other, Bogosian has the supporting characters stop the action periodically with monologues that tell us little we don't already know, and made me, at least, roll my eyes and think, "Oh, this is going to be one of those plays where characters talk to the audience for no reason." Stephanie March does particularly well under the circumstances; she's built a lot of solid character work into her moments alone onstage, but the script gives her very little to work with when it comes to building a believable character. (I know, stop the presses: Eric Bogosian doesn't write well for women!)

I read at least one review/article that wondered whether Talk Radio would seem dated, 20 years after its initial production. I didn't see that initial production, obviously, but I'd say the play is only helped by its status as a period piece. The fact that it takes place in 1987, and how that informs details like radio equipment and technology, costuming and makeup, pop culture references and political discussion topics, sustained my interest after the play itself was serving up surprises. I was in the front row, for a change, and so I was able to appreciate every tiny detail of the background, which was useful in those moments when the talk in the foreground wasn't quite doing it for me. Still, Talk Radio's most exciting moment, at least in my experience, comes much too early in the evening, and by the time the play reached its scripted climax I was feeling restless and curiously unmoved by the intense performance unfolding just a few feet away from where I sat. The brightest part of the second half turns out to be Sebastian Stan's performance; I was sorry when he left the stage, because I realized I wasn't at all invested in Barry or in what might happen to him.

It's still a really interesting idea for a play, and watching it come to life onstage is fascinating in spite of the script's shortcomings. Some time ago I linked to a "backstage tour" led by Stephanie March, and it's really quite interesting, so here it is again. Also enjoy the marketing department's attempt to build a free speech controversy around their radio ads. (For what it's worth, I think I'd rather not hear the phrase "your pet's orgasms" out of context on the radio, and I also think the ad would be better without it. So I'm afraid I'm siding with the "censors" here... Nice try, though.)

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