Laughing at It All on the Radio:

Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio Opens in Mather

"Nuclear war would be the best thing to happen to this country. It might wake some people up."

That is just the kind of sentiment one might expect to find on talk radio, though perhaps not from the talk show host. Barry Champlain, played by Bill Brazell, is the impassioned and crusading host of "Nighttalk" who spews statements such as these in the studio set in the Mather House TV room.

Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio consists primarily of an evening of Champlain's show, where listeners phone in to talk about topics ranging from nuclear war to pets to their fear of the garbage disposal. The show to which the audience is privy is the tense night before Champlain's show begins national broadcast. Early in the show, Champlain stresses the importance of this and every upcoming show as he pleads for intelligent caller commentary. He phrases it as a challenge: do the callers have anything worthwhile to say?

The callers phone in with the amusing thoughts and opinions we would expect, a random sampling of the minds of the population which make a show like Champlain's popular. Yet amidst this humor are the troubles of modernity--racism, sexism, child abuse, rape, teen pregnancy, drugs, etc. While Bogosian's play is comic, its intention is in no way farcical. The problems of the culture exemplified in talk radio are of course very real, and the people treat seriously their calls and the opinions expressed in the show.

Bogosian's idea for the show very likely came from the death of a talk show host in Denver in 1984. He writes in the liner notes found on the back of the program, "Alan Berg, an argumentative and left-leaning host, was machine-gunned down in his own drive-way by members of a white-power hate group. His death made it clear that people were listening and taking all his talk very seriously." Because the talk radio phenomenon finds its basis in social reality, Bogosian's Champlain must be taken somewhat seriously.

The nature of Champlain's mission is very difficult. His show must be entertaining, please the sponsors, and (he would like to think) still make a difference in this world of confusion. While Champlain wants to "tell it like it is," the fabricated, commercial talk show host we see personifies many of the problems he seems to be attacking. The audience is left to wonder what Champlain really believes.

Brazell plays Champlain well; his delivery is straightforward and believable. And while the lines seemingly roll off his tongue too easily, this is in keeping with the character. Appropriately, Brazell gives little insight into the substance behind the manufactured Champlain mask.

The audience is given insight into the complexity of Champlain's inner character through the soliloquies of the supporting characters. Stu Noonan, played by Alan Krischer, is Barry's operator. He talks about the private transformation of Champlain from man to radio personality. The assistant producer, Linda MacArthur, played by Sandra Vinton, tells us about her nights with Champlain, the confusion she perceives within him. The speeches of these characters are not high points of the production.

Robert Ashley plays Dan Woodruff, executive producer of WTLK, who gives us similar insights into the talk show host's character. Though he seems to be overly conscious of his own stage presence, his portrayal is credible.

The callers appear in silhouette to the right or left of the studio, bathed in colors. The actors portraying them, too numerous to mention here, are often very effective in their performances. And some attempt seems to have been made to coordinate the color filters of the lights with the characters of the callers--angry callers in red, pet-loving men in light blue, and anti-nuclear power advocates in lime green.

But particularly noteworthy among the callers is Tom Chick as Kent, the teen-age "party-er" who represents our future. Chick is dynamic both in silhouette, as a caller, and in the studio, when he visits Champlain. The humorous yet realistic dialogue between Chick and Brazell during the visit is a strong scene in the show.

By emphasizing the comic value of Kent and the other callers, however, director Dan Balsam loses some of the critical edge of the play. Bogosian does not seem to intend to de-emphasize the horror of this culture, and the problem with Talk Radio is its overemphasis on the comic at the expense of the work's critical purpose. The serious mood with which the show closes does not adequately redirect the focus of the audience.

As Brazell's fine performance is overwhelmingly the center of attention, the weaknesses of this production are relatively unimportant. Talk Radio, if nothing else, will amuse.