Pulling a pair of swing-arm mics toward his earphoned head, Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber), the hero of Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play Talk Radio, looks like he’s arming for battle. And he is, though both he and, as it ultimately turns out, his author are more than a little uncertain as to who the enemy is and what the fight’s all about. The emperor of a late-night phone-in show from that era when talk radio was not yet an exclusively right-wing fief, Barry uses his machine-gun mouth to fire on all comers, from hatemongers with Zionist conspiracy on the brain to greens spouting ready-made platitudes about pollution and Third World poverty. Many—maybe too many—of the callers are coherence-free nitwits or, worse, drug-elated teenage con artists trying to put one over on him, but Barry smacks down all with equal relish, even inviting the worst offender from the latter group onto the show, where the kid behaves improbably well.
What’s Barry about? Mainly, loving the pressure and the sound of his own voice putting down idiots. Playwright Bogosian picks at the phenomenon, which obviously has a close relationship to the obsessions at the core of his own solo performances (he played Barry in the original Public Theater production), from a variety of angles, testing Barry against a range of situations, giving the members of his support staff solo moments to paint their personal word-portraits of him, setting up circumstances that will lead the shock jock to a final implosion of that most dreaded of radio phenomena, dead air. Under Robert Falls’s able but jumpy directorial hand, it never quite coalesces into a dramatic statement. What does coalesce, pretty unforgettably, is Schreiber’s performance as a hard, compulsive, lizard-eyed cynic who keeps revealing, in flashes, the helpless, betrayed, idealist self he spends his nights trying to bury. If the drama encasing him were greater, Schreiber’s silence at the end would be seismic.