TALK RADIO: When They Go Low, Barry Goes in For the Kill
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
5th Wall Theatre
At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. RVA 23219
Performances: January 10-26, 2019
Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders; $10 ARGS Students
Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3921247
Barry Champlain (Scott Wichmann) is a talk radio host, a provocative shock jock of a nightly show. He is quick to mock his callers and even quicker to cut them off mid-sentence when they begin to bore him. Barry is caustic and cruel; he drinks too much, smokes too much, and washes down his drugs with liquor. He is brilliant but unlikeable, and he is mesmerizing. He brings in ratings.
Talk Radio was written in 1987 by Eric Bogosian who originally played the starring role. Based on an original idea by Tad Savinar and created by Bogosian and Savinar, the play is loosely based on the story of real-life talk radio host Alan Berg who was gunned down in his Denver, Colorado driveway in 1984. There is one brief hint of this bit of history when a mysterious package is delivered to Barry at his Cleveland, Ohio studio at WTLK Radio.
Director Morrie Piersol deftly manages to avoid making Talk Radio feel dated, most of the time. It’s both frightening and illuminating to find that the concerns of late night callers have not changed much in thirty years. It’s also hard to imagine anyone other than Wichmann playing this role with its multiple and often overlapping layers of darkness, humor, edginess, and impending doom.
There is an onstage support team surrounding Barry that is supposed to keep him from running off the track. There’s his Executive Producer, Dan Woodruff (Chandler Hubbard) who brings the news that Barry’s show is about to be nationally syndicated. Stu Noonan (PJ Freebourn) is Barry’s operator who screens and feeds his callers; Spike (Jimmy Mello) is the long-suffering and mostly silent sound engineer; Linda Macarthur (Haliya Roberts) is the Assistant Producer and Barry’s sometimes girlfriend.
In brief monologues, Woodruff, Freebourn, and Roberts share background and insight into Barry. This makes him more human, but no less caustic. When told that the show is going to be nationally syndicated, he deliberately says outrageous things about the sponsors. The most interesting interactions are between Barry and his unseen callers, voiced by Darrelle Brown, George Dippold, Chandler Hubbard, Gina McKenzie, John Mincks, and Paige Reisenfeld.
There are the sad people like the panda lady and the guy who eats dinner with his cat. There’s a sixteen year old girl left pregnant by her apparently much older boyfriend, and the lady who wants to know why there aren’t any new episodes of I Love Lucy. And then there are the right wingers, the anti-Semites, the racists, and the crazies, like Chet who calls back after sending that threatening package to Barry at the studio. For most of them, Barry calls their bluff, mocks them, leads them on, gains their trust, then cuts them off. But then there’s Kent (John Mincks), the kid who parties while his parents are away. He calls in with a scary story about his girlfriend overdosing, and against all advice and common sense, Barry calls him a liar. Of course, he was right, and the next thing you know Kent shows up at the station and joins Barry at his desk for some live on-air repartee that gets quite wild and out of control. Dan says he’s in control of this train, but one wonders. Barry seems headed for an on-air breakdown, but the more outrageous he becomes, the more the listeners like it!
Darrell Brown also plays the brief opening role of financial talk show host Sidney Greenberg with George Dippold as his operator Bernie. Gina Maria McKenzie is Dr. Susan Fleming, a psychologist, who share the closing scene with her assistant, Rachel (Paige Reisenfeld). They all do multiple duty as the invisible callers, using a variety of dialects and accents.
TJ Spencer designed and constructed the authentic-looking set. Roger Price did a great job as sound designer and sound technician. I don’t know, but since this was done in the style of an on-air radio show, it seems that a bit more was involved than in most productions, and it all worked seamlessly. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which did not require any special effects, and Sheila Russ designed the costumes.
Talk Radio is an intense and disturbing show that often pulled me to the edge of my seat. It covers a lot of ground, from people to politics. It’s harsh and raw and surprisingly still relevant – perhaps even more so in today’s political climate. Oh, and there is a full page advertisement near the back of the program that reads, “Radio’s dead. Start a Podcast!” Hmm.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka