|TALKING TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE ALIVE
by Harvey Perr
now playing on Broadway at the Longacre
If you remember the first time you met Barry Champlain (which, for this reviewer, was in Oliver Stone’s pumped-up, almost hysterically brilliant but not very subtle film version), in the person of the hyper-kinetic Eric Bogosian, who, as one of the writers, actually created the character, he was the self-professed moral center of an amoral world, too busy being emotionally explosive to notice anyone around him, too full of himself to hear the voices of the people who called him all night long on his radio show, crazily turning against those who gave him his celebrity in the first place. He seemed a cultural anti-hero of our time, a martyr not to his madness but to his moral superiority and our increasing moral apathy. Put that memory aside forever.
It is twenty years since Bogosian’s play first appeared – and we all know where talk radio has scarily come since those days - and a good deal of that play’s power, we ruefully have to admit, has waned. The guys out there doing the sort of thing Champlain did are beyond the pale, madmen in a mad world, men who do all the talking (and ranting) now, their audiences less vocal but more politicized and possibly more dangerous (but probably just as lonely). Champlain may have been a harbinger of things to come but not, one guesses, in the way Bogosian and his co-writer Tad Savinar originally imagined.
Enter Liev Schreiber: the raison-d’etre of the play’s current revival.
When Schreiber’s Barry Champlain comes into Studio B of radio station WTLK in Cleveland, Ohio, niftily replicated in Mark Wendland’s set design, he is, if anything, one notices immediately, emotionally implosive. He is world-weary, burnt-out, cold-eyed, thin-lipped, you name it, he’s a walking corpse, the living dead. He’s like that man you see in the corner at Starbuck’s, plugged into his laptop, staring for hours at something but registering not a whit of reaction to what he’s staring at, head set on, drowning out the sounds of the world. Humanity, you feel, has betrayed him; he has found solace in retreating from humanity; he will never be hurt again. You know exactly where he lives and how he lives and just how empty that life is. You want to know more about him. And, at the same time, you want to keep away from him, the farther away the better. In fact, the more the people in his life try to reach out to him, the more detached he becomes. Just try and you’ll feel how clammy the air gets. Watch his mouth. It is a slash of repressed rage. See what the taste of booze does to that mouth. Watch those eyelids. And how shielded they are from feeling. The terrifying part, of course, is that he’s smart and he really knows how detached he has become and, when he invites a potentially dangerous caller to come over to the studio and is finally confronted by someone else’s madness, he is, in fact, for a brief moment, in touch with his own. Part of him is waiting to be killed; it is his idea of suicide.
Any actor who can tell you so much without giving anything away is a great actor. Liev Schreiber is a great actor. Anyone interested in the art of acting owes it to one’s self to see this performance. There is a long pause that Schreiber takes before uttering his last line, a pause that contains all the horrors Barry Champlain finally sees floating around inside his mind, that is devastating to behold, one of those moments that live forever in the history books of the theater and in the memories of anyone fortunate enough to have been there to see it.
And yet, when one hears that last line, one is apt to start wondering: Is that all there is? Some of this may be due to the curiously unfocused direction of the usually reliable Robert Falls, and to the fact that Schreiber’s great performance exists within a kind of vacuum since none of the rest of the cast comes anywhere near to enriching their characters with the requisite depth. The one exception is Sebastian Stan as the driven little maniac whose visit to the radio station provides us with the kind of fury that provides a perfect balance to Schreiber’s buttoned-up twistedness. It may also be that the play itself doesn’t stand up to the close scrutiny that a powerful characterization, like Liev Schreiber’s, demands of a play. As it stands now, it is as if so much has been revealed and so little, finally, has been said.