It's been 25 years this summer since Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg was murdered in his own driveway by one of his white-supremacist anti-fans. Eric Bogosian's 1987 play Talk Radio, partly based on Berg's career, just opened at Chyro Arts Venue, serving an unsettling blend of nostalgia, activism, and respectable art.
As a solo performer, Bogosian was annoying as hell, which is part of his genius. In Chyro's Voice Theatre's production, Michael Peck is appropriately wild-eyed and riveting as shock jock Barry Champlain. If Peck had a real radio show, I might even listen to it, which is saying a lot. I did not get the impression that his character was on a runaway train to self-destruction, as the dialogue implies, but that's not entirely critical to the unfolding of the script's single evening in Champlain's Cleveland studio.
Talk Radio's a very early work of Bogosian's, and in a new-playwright fashion, each of the other characters in the studio tends to deliver a weak-ass monologue about their history with Champlain while he's smoking or pissing on commercial breaks. These are super-clunky and embarrassing, and they don't really distinguish any of the characters. Director Tom Leveen and the ensemble do their best to smooth these segments out through creative staging, but it's somewhat out of their hands. There's a flow to the late-night conversational intimacy of disgruntled co-workers that just didn't make it into the script.
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But, again, that's not the main point. Imagine Ronald Reagan smack in the middle of his second term as President, and the surviving champions of the '60s civil rights and peace movements still possessing energy and hair. That's where Talk Radio happens -- "Morning in America" -- and a prime reason to revive the play is that we're still struggling with most of the same issues. It's easy to argue that everything's different since 9/11, but not everything is.
Over the course of his time slot, Champlain encounters a few conflicts and crises to ratchet up the dramatic tension, and he concludes, finally, that no one who calls in shares his passion about what's going on in the world. He's probably right -- the listeners are lonely, or cruel, or frightened, or craving their own moment of fame -- but does he reach this same dispiriting realization five times a week?
That's what I find ultimately fascinating -- that some people (writers, performers, the people who print stuff on Starbucks cups) are simply compelled to share their take on the mysteries of existence. Leveen's program notes suggest that perhaps we're a bit too chatty these days, and about stupid, depressing things, to the exclusion of building the reality we want. He has a point, but if you aren't ready to give up your messy, superficial, overstimulated life of the mind, Talk Radio will at least provide a window of time to consider it.
The show's not recommended for people younger than 13; no intermission; pee first; be generous with your barista. Talk Radio continues through Friday, September 11, at Chyro Arts Venue, 1330 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are $12; order here or call 480-258-2329 after 5 p.m. on performance days.