Small theaters around Dallas once again are brimming with big ideas and hot talent. The show to see right now—one that will make you excited about live theater, even if you haven't been to a play in years—is Upstart Productions and Project X's staging of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio.
Launching a season devoted to Bogosian's work, the Upstart team has paid microscopic attention to detail for this production of the playwright's most famous piece. Director Regan Adair and his cast, plus scenic designers Joel and Scott Bayer, costumer Kari Heyne Engelbrecht, lighting designer Scott Payne and sound designer Mason York have created something in the intimate space of The Green Zone theater that is visually, aurally, viscerally thrilling.
In 100 minutes, Talk Radio covers one broadcast of Night Talk With Barry Champlain, a mid-1980s late-night local radio show on the verge of going national. Its bounce to the big time is contingent on this night's performance of its host, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking hothead with a habit of cutting off callers mid-sentence and baiting the "suit" who runs the small Cleveland station that carries the show.
Based loosely on the life and abrasive on-air temperament of Alan Berg, a Denver radio host killed by white supremacists in 1984, Talk Radio's Barry Champlain (played by Elias Taylorson) might also remind you of the young Howard Stern. He's a Jewish egomaniac wracked by personal insecurities, given to tantrums and shocking on-air taunts aimed at his own sponsors and employers. But he's also brilliant, a born multitasker who can juggle conversations with five phone lines, crack inside jokes with his producing team, pour a shot of Jack, light his 15th smoke of the night and open a box of mail that might contain a disgruntled listener's homemade bomb. All while never spilling a drop.
Determined to impress the syndication bosses with a hot show, Barry hectors his call screener, Stu (Tony Martin), not to put the usual parade of wacked-out cat ladies and toked-up teenagers on the air. "This country is rotten to the core!" Barry roars into the microphone, pushing to pump up the volume. Daring listeners to call in to argue, he invokes three topics every talk show host can fall back on as guaranteed button-pushers: anti-Semitism, legalizing drugs and "Is God dead?"
As the night dizzies into chaos—one of those druggie kids shows up at the station and demands air time—Barry starts to crumble. After years of midnight palavers with confused transsexuals, suicidal addicts and lonely housewives ("nothing's more boring than people who love you," says Barry), the host faces the stark reality that going national won't mean a new pool of smarter listeners and sharper callers, just a larger audience of dumb ones.
The final 15 minutes of Talk Radio features Barry Champlain in full meltdown behind the mike. "You frighten me," Barry growls at his callers. "I come here every night, tear into you, I abuse you, I insult you, and you just keep coming back for more. What's wrong with you? Why do you keep calling? I don't wanna hear it anymore. Stop talking! Go away!"
Talk about a tough scene to act. It's a hard thing for an actor to play a character who is losing control, while keeping tight control on how his character does just that. Actor Elias Taylorson does it perfectly, keeping his balance by bringing Barry Champlain to a slow simmer before he boils over. The progression of Taylorson's performance is fascinating, from Barry the control freak radio star in the early scenes, to the man who suddenly grows hopeful for a way up and out of Cleveland, then to the broken soul squinting through a nimbus of cigarette smoke, knowing he has made a Faustian bargain. He has sold out to those whiny nut jobs and psychos he's come to hate hearing on the other end of the phone lines. He's stuck with them.
Talk Radio, whose take on the medium pre-dates its rightwing Limbaugh-fication by a decade, becomes a better play because of Taylorson. The actor not only sounds like a radio pro but one who, by the end of his show, has consumed a bottle of whiskey and is trying to sound reasonably sober. Taylorson is so good; he finds layers in his emotional dissection of Barry Champlain that even the playwright himself missed when he played the role in his own film of the script in 1988.
The whole production is multilayered, including the scenery that re-creates an entire radio studio with period-accurate computers, headphones, commercials ("let's go Krogering!") and even the coffeemaker. Regan Adair has a special way with naturalism, in his work as an actor and now as director. There isn't a false moment from any person or prop in Talk Radio. Tony Martin, Meridith Morton (as the producer who once slept with the "talent") and Shane Beeson (as the station director) each have monologues talking about their relationship to Barry. They're so low-key and conversationally underplayed, the audience is tempted to answer back.
Some of the best work in this show is by actors you never see. Playing multiple callers' voices are the brilliant Lulu Ward, Joey Folsom, Raquel Lydia Leal, Michael Rains and Clay Wheeler. They're not recorded; they "call in" to Night Talk live from an offstage phone, another little touch of realism that keeps Talk Radio flawlessly dialed in.
Empty Room played to a near-empty room on opening night at Matthew Posey's funky Ochre House, the Fair Park storefront space where Posey lives and puts on small, strange shows. Written by, directed by and co-starring Dallas actor Kevin Grammer, the one-hour, two-scene play is an abstract meditation on the use of torture to extract confessions from suspected terrorists.
Two prisoners (Laurel Whitsett, Mitchell Parrack, both good actors), encased in muslin bags and blindfolded, hang suspended from hooks in a bare, six-sided room. They're cut down and questioned by a "doctor" (Grammer), who insists with a tight smile that they don't need lawyers and will be released if they cooperate. Soon, another man (Brian Witkowitcz) is thrown in with them. Is this trio of prisoners part of the 1960s Weather Underground? Or are they modern-day domestic terrorists who planned the bombing of a federal building?
Empty Room asks more questions than it gives answers, but with some polishing, it could be a little gem on the order of Sartre's No Exit. With hints of 1984 (dig those TV monitors above the stage that give a glimpse into another empty room where characters sometimes appear), the play has provocative things to say about homeland security and civil rights. What would you do under such treatment, save yourself or free an innocent friend?
Ochre House is still finding its way as a home for cutting-edge theater. Original work like Empty Room needs to be encouraged and supported, if only so the rows of seats can be perceived not as half-empty but half-full.