Theatre review: Talk Radio

John Nathan on a disconcerting tale of a radio shock jock


Eric Bogosian’s Pulitzer-nominated play of 1987 came out of the murder of shock jock Alan Berg who was shot dead in his Denver drive-way by a member of white supremacist group The Order, who had compiled a list of prominent Jews to murder.

You probably didn’t have to be a raging Nazi to want to kill Berg. He perfected the phone-in technique of insulting callers and then cutting them off. Still, he did have a talent for flushing out prejudice and, being a Jew, especially antisemitism.

That bigotry is revealed here in one terrifically tense scene in which Texan caller Chad rails against Night Talk host and “Israel mouthpiece” Barry Champlain (Bogosian’s version of Berg), excellently played here with a combustible mix of egotism and self-loathing by Matthew Jure. Chad has sent Barry a present which, while live on air, he tells the radio host is a bomb. The package is sitting next to Barry in the sound proof cube from which he broadcasts.

Max Dorey’s design of the studio is utterly convincing. The dialogue between Barry and his colleagues on the other side of the glass is conducted via microphones and speakers, a triumph of technical problem-solving. Then there is the technical challenge of Barry’s numerous callers, which, unless this pub theatre has a back room filled with 13 off-stage actors ready to step up to the mic on cue, must have all been pre-recorded. Yet Jure times the live half of these exchanges to perfection. I mention all this simply because it’s worth dwelling on just how ambitious a tiny pub theatre can be.

Sean Turner’s pretty faultless production only dips where Bogosian’s script indulges in a somewhat mannered attempt to expand on Barry’s relationship with his assistant Linda (Molly McNerney). Elsewhere, it unflinchingly burrows into the psyche of Barry and his callers, their fears and prejudices.

This is the 30th anniversary production of Bogosian’s play. The author went on to play the role not only on stage but in the film version directed by Oliver Stone. Yet the surprise is that this revival delivers much more than a nostalgic whiff of ’80s America. When Bogosian’s Barry riffs on the dysfunction of the society he broadcasts to, it feels as if he is talking much more about today and Trump’s America than yesterday and Ronald Reagan’s. Because, despite Berg’s murder, talk of Nazis was generally late-night phone-in fare back then.

Now they march through American streets — a seemingly unending trail of burning torches and Jew-hating intent. And the climate of fear in which Barry pontificates on paedophiles and terrorism is more heightened today than it has ever been.

So you leave the theatre with a disconcerting sense that Barry is more prophet than a talk-show host, and that subjects that were once confined to the extremes of the broadcasting schedules because they existed only on the margins of society, are now part of the everyday.

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