Birth of the echo chamber

Talk Radio

Don’t let those baby blues fool you. This talk-radio host is not a nice guy.

Don’t let those baby blues fool you. This talk-radio host is not a nice guy.

Photo By alysha s. krumm

Talk Radio plays Resurrection Theatre at the Wilkerson Theatre at the California Stage complex, 1723 25th Street; 8 p.m. on December 17, 18, 22, 23, 29, 30 and January 1, 6, 7 and 8; $10-$15; (916) 838-0618; Through January 8.

Wilkerson Theatre (formerly The California Stage)

1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 451-5822

Rated 4.0

Schadenfreude. That’s what radio host Barry Champlain’s audience feelswhen he rips into callers, and it’s why they’ve made him the top talk-show host in Cleveland. They delight in the misery of others as Barry takes callers apart on the air. His talk show is about to be syndicated nationally, and Resurrection Theatre’s Talk Radio, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Eric Bogosian, captures a decade’s zeitgeist in one night.

But Barry’s not feeling schadenfreude. It’s closer to despair, with a heavy dose of compulsion. He hates the ignorance and self-centeredness of the people he talks to—but he can’t stop talking. Barry is not a nice guy, which makes it a great role for local actor Eric Baldwin, who is noted for his ability to portray men who behave badly. Abrasive isn’t a strong enough word; as Baldwin plays him, Barry is simply unable to give another human being the benefit of the doubt. Instead, he focuses on the meanest and lowest possible source for their beliefs and behavior. Why not? It certainly applies to him.

Set in 1987, the last of the Reagan years, Talk Radio reveals the dark heart of a selfish decade when it seemed that we’d already seen the worst side of ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn’t know there was worse to come, and while Baldwin’s Barry is nasty, he’s not even close to being amoral. That makes him more than a few steps above the current crop of talk-radio hosts (and their cable-TV counterparts).

A strong supporting cast includes Wade Lucas as the station manager, a money-grubbing, ratings-watching capitalist if ever there was one; Gina Williams as Barry’s assistant and soon-to-be spurned lover; and a breakthrough performance by Ernesto S. Bustos as Stu, a former deejay who gave it up to serve as Barry’s sidekick. Each of them takes a turn at a monologue as they attempt to “explain” Barry—and instead reveal their own reasons for taking his abuse. Brandon Lancaster has a scene-stealing performance as Kent, an obnoxious teenage caller who tries to punk Barry and ends up invited into the studio, where he blithely acts out and provokes plenty of vitriol from the apparently bottomless pit of Barry’s bile.

To say that Baldwin nails the role is an understatement; he’s mastered the art of acting like an ever-so-slightly insecure cock of the walk. But he also manages to add just a touch of vulnerability and a raft of intelligence, which does nothing so much as make us mourn for the possibilities that were lost when talk radio, under the egocentric thumb of guys like Barry, began its inexorable slide into an intellectual wasteland.

Directed by Margaret Morneau, the show moves quickly, with no intermission. A detailed ’80s-era radio-station set, designed by Morneau and Bustos, includes genuine equipment borrowed from Capital Public Radio.

And there’s the talk, plenty of it. But we’d probably be a happier people if we left the schadenfreude behind us for good.