REVIEW: Talk Radio (State Theatre)

Small storefront ends its inaugural season with a roar

 

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 1

   
State Theatre presents
   
Talk Radio
   
Written by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Ross Matsuda
at
Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 15th   | 
tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio premiered in 1987, shock jocks and morning zoo crews dominated the air waves. You couldn’t drive to work without some knucklehead on the dial making crass jokes or belittling his audience. It was sadism and masochism at its most commercial.

Today, the market has changed, but unfortunately not for the better. Radio—now competing for attention with television and the Internet—is threatened to become a relic of the past. And so, to survive, it has tweaked its format. Many of the shock jocks and zoo crews of yesterday couldn’t adapt. But some have evolved into a new beast that is even more vile and wretched than a thousand Howard Sterns. That’s right. The talking head. The political pundit. The Glenn Beck.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 2 The play’s antihero is of this Glenn Beck ilk minus the religious piety but with the need to belittle, fear monger and win every argument intact. His name is Barry Champlain (Nathan Randall), and he’s a Cleveland late-night DJ, who as of tomorrow will be going national.

We get a sneak peak into a charged episode of the show. Callers include a 15-year-old pregnant girl whose deadbeat boyfriend skipped town, a woman who is deathly afraid of her garbage disposal and a teenaged burnout whose girlfriend may or may not have just suffered a drug overdose.

Intermittently, between this string of callers, we get a sneak peak inside Barry’s psyche. His colleagues provide brief monologues that detail their relationship with Barry, revealing a confused and deeply disturbed individual who has turned his back on himself only to recede further into the depths of dementia.

As caller after caller chimes in with another fear, question or inane statement, Barry becomes increasingly agitated. Slowly, the radio host begins to question himself and his audience. Is he an entertainer or a public servant? Is he part of the solution or the mouthpiece for the problem?

Talk Radio is only as good as your Barry Champlain. And the State Theatre has found an amazing Champlain in Randall. His performance is unwavering in its callousness and coldness. His eyes are fiery with a flame that is at once both outwardly searing and self-engulfing. This is a character who is consumed by himself, and whose self-vitriol is projected out to millions of listeners. He is not a likeable character, and Randall doesn’t make you like him. But Randall does make you believe in him; that he is real and right in front of you and that you should hate him. And I hated him, which is why I loved Randall’s performance.

The supporting actors all do good work, and Tyler Ravelson, who plays the stoner teenager Kent, deserves to be spotlighted. Growing up in suburbia, I’ve seen my share of dopey doped up teenagers, and I can say that Ravelson’s portrayal is a carbon copy. In addition, there is such a smoothness to his performance, so much so that when Kent suddenly commandeers the in-studio mic, it feels spontaneous and unscripted.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Nathan Randall and Tyler Ravelson

The production’s only drawback is the play’s use of a video feed during the first half. Rather than sticking with voiceovers for callers, the play’s director, Ross Matsuda, decided to go with a Webcam feed projected on a translucent screen behind Barry. The images are a distraction from the callers’ words, and as an audience member, I want to use my imagination to envision Barry’s listeners.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles that merge editorial with opinion, that live by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” that serve less to inform and more to threaten, Talk Radio is a highly relevant piece of drama. Who knows? You may even find some solace in the play because, although Barry Champlain might not embody the solution, his existence at least reveals that others out there know there’s a problem.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

Theater Thursday: Talk Radio (State Theatre at Heartland)

Theater Thursday

 

Thursday, July 29

Talk Radio   by Eric Bogosian

The State Theatre of Chicago at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave

talkradioVisit the Heartland Studio for a radical re-imagining of Eric Bogosian‘s Pulitzer-Prize nominated play, Talk Radio. Then stick around immediately following the performance for a discussion with the director, cast, and Artistic Director. Light refreshments and drinks will be provided. Talk radio host Barry Champlain is a relic of an analog age, on the verge of a deal for national syndication. Tonight, not only is he under assault from many callers-in, but he also has digital communication thrust upon him. Bogosian meets Orwell in this commentary on the media.

Show begins at 8 p.m.   Event begins immediately following the performance

Tickets: $20    For reservations visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.