“Talk Radio” is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play written by Eric Bogosian and based on a concept by Bogosian and Tad Savinar. You can tell it’s 1987 because people are still smoking in their workplaces. The costumes well-represent the era — I believe I had an identical skirt to Linda’s (Lauren Jackson). But the story plays just as fresh in 2021 as it did then. Vagabond Players have done a chillingly excellent job of staging it.
‘Talk Radio’ is very good…timely…
We get to witness one night in the work life of Barry Champlain (Stuart Kazanow) — the night before his show is to go into nationwide syndication. In a way, Champlain seems almost frightened of going national. At the moment, he’s on WTLK, a station in Cleveland. His show attracts the conspiracy theorists, the disaffected, the lonely, the desperate, the attention-seeking, the cruel, the angry, the hopeless, the bigoted, the xenophobic, and the misogynistic. Clearly nothing has changed in the interceding 34 years. It’s a depressing realization, and one that seems to panic Champlain at the end when he lets over 30 seconds of dead air go out. But he’s made his bargain with the devil and keeps it.
Kazanow does a great job in this part. As his character walks that line between egging his listeners on and trying to get them to think, you can see the toll it takes. He veers between pandering to the lowest common denominator and trying to introduce them to reality. He’s snarky, smirky, loud, belligerent, short on patience, and fearful. There is a look in his eyes of near horror at what he senses/hears roiling beneath the stew of late-night callers. It’s a confident, vulnerable, and somewhat icy performance.
His co-workers — Dan Woodruff (Tim Sayles) the station manager, Linda Macarthur (Lauren Jackson) as a fixer, almost, and Stu (David Cooper) as his producer — all give us insights into the evolution of Champlain, and hence, into the evolution of talk radio as it stands today. As Linda, Jackson has a smoldering sensuality that she simply owns, and her competence at problem-solving and insights into people are deftly nuanced. At one point she notes that Barry kissing her was “like a drowning man trying to get on a life raft” (and is there anyone who doesn’t instantly flash to “Titanic” and Rose on the door?) but she gives him the life raft, at least temporarily.
Tyler White plays a young man named Kent who is called into the show and later invited to speak on-air in-person. His portrayal of a young man who is somewhat prescient about our future and railing against it, is another eerie moment. He may have been somewhat inarticulate and naive in the way he made his pronouncements, but he was right. White gives the character all the callousness and ineffectualness of being 20 with the dawning realization that things are really interconnected and going to get worse.
“Talk Radio” is very good. It’s not comforting and it’s not especially comedic, although there is a gallow humor to many of the callers’ concerns. It also humanizes the callers, because this show is a very timely reminder that we’re all callers of one kind or another.
Show Advisory: For mature audiences only.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes without intermission.
“Talk Radio” runs through June 27, 2021 at 11:00 p.m. This production is recorded on stage and presented virtually through Vimeo, by Vagabond Players, Inc., Baltimore, MD. For more information, please click here.