Writer: Eric Bogosian
Director: Greg Cicchino
Reviewer: Jonathan Alexandratos
Variations Theatre Group’s production of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio is anything but dead air. In the play’s riveting 90 minutes, we see the rise and fall of shock jock Barry Champlain (played spot-on by Kirk Gostkowski). Bogosian, a master of making us interested in the unsympathetic, paints a character so alive in his speech, one barely notices that he takes all of his insults, praise, greetings, good news, bad news, and threats seated in more or less the same spot, right next to his iconic talk radio microphone.
From the get-go, the audience is in this play. Production designer Aaron Gonzalez, surely working with director Greg Cicchino, has crafted a recording studio so realistic, it is as if the audience has stumbled into a radio station to watch the evening unfold. In addition, the house lights remain up for most of the show, further pulling the audience in to Champlain’s on-air drama. As an assortment of callers phone in, one is tempted to pick up his or her cell phone, turn it on, and try calling the station personally. Three characters – Secretary Linda (an ultimately heartbreaking Christina Perry), Sound Guy Stu (Patrick Pizzolorusso, who is a master of both the comedic and the tragic), and Producer Dan Woodruff (a perfectly engrossing Timothy J. Cox) – break the fourth wall at various intervals to let the audience in on their experiences with hotshot Champlain. These breathers from Champlain’s talk show routine are welcome. We become engaged with Champlain’s past, and get to partake in “commercial breaks” that only enhance the realism of the play.
The structure of this piece is well thought out: Champlain begins as the popular jerk, and ends, we can infer, as the self-loathing, injured jerk. But the fun of this piece is assembling its meanings. One is tempted to see this piece as Bogosian’s metaphor for God. After all, Champlain refers to himself as the All-Mighty on more than one occasion, and his initials don’t exactly instigate a rejection of his Old Testament God-hood: “B.C.” If one follows this image, Champlain becomes a somewhat cynical image of God, thumbing through callers – prayers – with nothing to indicate anyone is taking anything all that seriously (deaths turn out to be hoaxes, teenage relationships trump international plights, maladies become comedies). Roughly three-fourths of the way through the play, a young stoner named Kent (Gordon Palagi, who does more with this fairly stock character than this reviewer ever thought possible) arrives in the studio to effectively worship Champlain. His brief stint as on-air assistant ends with a betrayal, which brings him closer to Champlain than ever. If this bleeds Kent-/Christ-like imagery, this reviewer’s point has been made.
While this is one interpretation, it isn’t the only. This play is heavily relevant to the 21st Century – one where everyone is a voyeur, mercilessly recording violence as though it were a birthday party. The play’s topics, all of which headlined late 80s/early 90s newspapers, still scream for our attention. Indeed, Talk Radio can also be read as an apt parable for our current society, and a warning of what we can all become.
There is nothing better than theatre that gives you ideas to mull over on the way home, and then when you get home, and then the next morning when you wake up. The actors that dispatch these ideas here do so with a talent as elegant as the arc of their story.
Furthermore, it is important that this powerhouse of passion and storytelling has converged on the Chain Theatre, one of Queens’ many fantastic venues. Queens theatre is quickly becoming some of the best of this city. Use this show as an opportunity to discover – or rediscover! – the magic happening in Queens.
Runs until 27th September 2014 | Photo: Michael Benabib