When the show surfaced on Broadway March 11 at the Longacre starring a red ball express named Liev Schreiber, the old firebrand showed up in the rather subdued role of esteemed playwright who, he said, puts in 70 hours of "Law and Order" work every week.
"I'm glad I'm not doing it," admitted the man who created (on page and stage) the role of the rampaging Barry Champlain, who, fueled on booze and drugs, takes callers — and no prisoners — on his abrasive, all-night radio show, spilling venom on both sides of the sound booth. "It's too hard. I love watching fabulous actors playing roles I've written."
He gestured in a very pointed fashion at the man in the middle of a mob of admirers. "Look how suave this guy is. Isn't he the most suave guy? I was never suave like that."
Suaveness aside, Schreiber is a New Age Bogosian and gives a ferocious and staggeringly sustained account of a man careering dizzyingly into an on-air breakdown and, worse, a full of minute of "dead air" silence that practically screams. Talk Radio was the next step in Bogosian's evolution as writer after authoring a half dozen highly successful solo shows (Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and so forth); basically, it too is a one-man band, garnished with subsidiary characters who act as curb-feelers for his out-of-control antics.
"No, actually," said Schreiber, begging to differ with the solo notion. "I had all the callers there. The engine of the play is really the callers. Barry's nothing without those calls." Howard Stern was not a reference point for Schreiber. He looked no farther than the original. "Eric Bogosian," he readily confessed, "is the inspiration for everything. The idea of ever doing that role never occurred to me. The producer, Jeffrey Richards, brought the idea to me" — and, since Richards produced the revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, which won Schreiber the Tony as 2005's Featured Actor, "yes" was pretty immediate. "I saw the original version of both of those, and both were within a year of each other, but I never had any idea I'd wind up in them. I'm completely blessed."
Bogosian actively discouraged his family from attending the opening ("I told them, 'You don't want to come to this one because I'm going to be pingponging all over the place'), but Schreider opted for home and hearth and shooed away press when he finally had a chance to sit down beside his proud mom and girlfriend Naomi Watts. His proud bro, Pablo, was present, true to their fraternal tradition. Exactly a week earlier, Liev attended Pablo's opening in Christopher Shinn's Dying City at Lincoln Center. When complimented on his reviews, Pablo said, "Oh, thanks. I don't read them. I love the play so I hope people come see it."
Racking up his second Schreiber opening in a week, Chris Bauer (Defiance and Broadway's last Streetcar Named Desire) owed up to his friend-of-the-family status. "Liev and I are very, very close friends. We go back to our very first day in the Yale School of Drama. And Pablo, his brother, played my nephew in a TV series, 'The Wire.'"
You might deduce from this he was proud of his long-standing pal: "The beauty of seeing somebody who's so prolific on stage, like Liev, and knowing him as long as I have, is that I can see incrementally what kind of aesthetic obligation and problem he's solving for one production at a time. He is working so subtly and with such sublime commitment to character that he is creeping closer and closer into Anthony Hopkins territory where there's no space between who he is and the part he's playing. Any temptation to decorate it, that might encourage the audience to think that he's better than he is, he resists.
"This performance is really a labor of love for Liev," he continued. "He loves Eric Bogosian, and he is devoted to him as somebody who inspired him — Live — years and years and years ago, so the whole thing is a great collision of a tribute to Eric and Liev's own great skill. I admire so much how he put this character together. I was moved. I knew exactly who he was. And he didn't really seem to be all that worried about awards."
Mrs. Bogosian — Jo Bonney, who directed a Second Stage revival of his SubUrbia and the excellent All That I Will Ever Be, which just concluded its run at New York Theatre Workshop — is bound for L.A. to do Fat Pig once more for the West Coast at the Geffen. "We're in the middle of casting," she said. "We'll know in about a week where we are."
The "Law and Order" faction was out in full force, a united show of support for Bogosian — scripter (and Pulitzer Prize winner on the Side Man) Warren Leight, Chris Noth, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay. Seven of their co-stars actually appear on stage: Stephanie March as Schreiber's girl-Friday (and girl), Peter Hermann (as the corporate suit riding herd on him and wearing a tie personally picked for him by wife Hargitay) and five of the multi-charactered callers: Sebastian Stan, Barbara Rosenblat, Adam Sietz, Cornell Womack and Lee Sellars.
According to March, the "Law and Order" contingency "is the most supportive group of people. They're troopers, those people. They're professionals, I'll tell ya. It's a really, really wonderful time in my life, and I'm very fortunate to count them as my friends."
A willowy blonde stunner, she happens to be married to Bobby Flay, celebrity chef for Bar Americain where the opening-night bash was held — but happily she was not pressed into any hostess duties. "I have such a good husband. He said, 'Tonight's your night, and you just have a good time and forget about everything else. He's pretty good like that."
Unlike the callers who are heard but not seen, March is one of the performers who is seen but rarely heard. It's a whole world they have created inside the glassed-off sound booth. "At first, we thought it would be very limiting to be back there, but I have to tell you we feel lucky. Nobody can hear us so we really can flesh out our own play, improvise what's happening among each other. It makes it a much richer experience for us because of it."
Michael Laurence got a wonderful birthday present this year — the role of Schreiber's call-screener — when the actor he was understudying abruptly opted to go off and write a book. "We had our first preview the following night," he recalled rather vividly, "so I had 24 hours to learn my four-page monologue in the play, and then we were off to the races."
He felt it was kinda kismet that he got the role. "I moved to New York City from Ohio to do downtown theatre, and I'd heard of Eric Bogosian and Talk Radio had just opened at The Public Theater. It was the very first play I ever saw in New York. I'd been here for a day. Bogosian was a hero of mine, so now it feels like it has come around full circle."
Brian Dennehy, resting on his laurels from his delightful turn in the four-day My Fair Lady done by the New York Philharmonic (it is disconcerting to see Willy Loman do a buck-and-wing to "A Little Bit of Luck"), is in limbo now between Alfred P. Doolittle and Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind, starting previews March 19 at the Lyceum.
He was there to cheer on Robert Falls, who had directed him to Tonys for Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night. For Falls, Talk Radio was a no-brainer. "They just asked me if I'd like to do this play with Liev Schrebier. I said 'Of course.'"
Among the other first-nighters: Natalie Portman, syndicated radio personality Tom Leykis, Alan Alda, CBS's Harry Smith, TCM's Robert Osborne, Elizabeth Ashley, Kieran Culkin with Oscar winner Anna Paquin, Bernadette Peters, former mayor David Dinkins, "Sex and the City's" Cynthia Nixon and Kristen Davis, The Pajama Game composer Richard Adler, artist Leroy Neiman, Jonathan Cake (Jason to Fiona Shaw's Medea), Laila Robins and Robert Cuccioli and Grey Gardens' Bob Stillman.
When he's not house-managing the Longacre, Joe Traina plays the clarinet and leads his quintet in gigs about town. "There's a new place called 583 Park in the Christian Science Church on 63rd I'm supposed to be at regularly this spring. And we have every hope of the Hamptons this summer." His next real-world gig is relocating to the Cort. "I'll be on radio as house manager this season," he said. "I'm going from Talk Radio to Radio Golf." Lead producer Richards found a quiet nook in the men's room foyer to bask in Ben Brantley's Times notice. He was pleased, and the rave triggered an adjectival tsunami of his own: "Eric's writing is the music of language. It's jazz riffs with those callers. To me, it's absolutely thrilling to hear his 'music' on stage. I've seen it 20 times out of the 25 performances we've had. I don't feel it's anything less than electrifying — especially this play as a play. It has aged well. It's relevant and it's scathingly funny. This is one of the great anti-heroes, like a J.J. Hunsecker or a Sidney Falco. Eric's dialogue just crackles the way that Odets' and Lehman's dialogue crackled in 'Sweet Smell of Success.'"
Two stage appearances into his career, Adam Sietz is getting the rep of a curtain-raiser, beginning this show as he did with last season's Barefoot in the Park by installing Amanda Peet's phone. Talk Radio opens with him signing off his broadcast as Sidney Greenberg, leaving the premises for Schreiber to pulverize and racing to his phone-in battle station below the stage, becoming Schieber's first victim/caller: Francine the transsexual. He calls in as Henry the nuclear dude and Ralph the psycho, too.
"I had never done a play in my life before Barefoot," admitted Sietz. "I didn't even audition for that. It was a reading I fell into as a replacement for somebody. When I got to this call-back, Bob Falls starts the call-back with: 'Adam, before we begin, tell me what it was like to walk into the theatre after you got the raves for Barefoot and they crapped all over the show? How did that go?' That's how he introduced me to the cast and the crew. I thought, 'God! That's the best way to walk into the room.' Then I got the opportunity to literally learn from one of the best directors in the business. And Liev has been very helpful, too — he's the hardest-working man on Broadway right now. I feel like I really got a master's class in theatre — and they were paying me. How can you beat that?"
Broadway appears to be no longer forbidden for Forbidden Broadway's Christine Pedi, one of the voice artists who materializes on stage in the closing moments of the play in a carnival-colored schmatta ("It's very 'Facts of Life,' don't you think? I'm getting ready to go to the mall with Mrs. Garrett and Tootie.") She confines her talents to three roles instead of her usual 30 or so. "It's a relief not to be changing costumes constantly."
One of her characters has the largest unseen role in the play — a paranoid, agoraphobic clean-freak who drones on inanely while the characters deal with a possible mail bomb.
"Actually," she said, "Little Me was my Broadway debut, and I'm under Broadway for most of the time, not on. We are in booths underneath the stage. They built special sound booths for us down there. I like creating characters instead of re-creating them, for a change. I'm having a wonderful time. Everybody's great, all the voiceover artists really dig each other and we make each other laugh and we appreciate each other's work."
The only blue note she sounded was about how keenly she felt the absence of Barrymore's Restaurant on West 45th, a favorite haunt of hers. "I was thinking of it tonight when we didn't get our apples. Barrymore's would send baskets of apples on opening night since it was a tradition in the time of John Barrymore. It made me sad. It made me very sad."
Rosenbat's favorite voice is the woman who has O.D.-ed on "I Love Lucy" reruns and wonders why they don't make any new episodes. "There are three booths set up downstairs, and five of us jump from one to the other throughout the show," she said. "We cover about 37 phone calls. All of this is done live. What we did record was a bunch of radio spots that you hear during the program, so that you get the sense that this is a real-time radio program. It's a wonderful show, and it's great for me because, literally, we phone it in every night."