Chicago Actors Theatre

I first encountered Eric Bogosian about six years ago, when the now-defunct Huron theater brought him in from New York to lead workshops and perform his one-man, multicharacter show FunHouse. He was considered avant-garde or at least edgy back then, partly because he worked solo, in the manner of a performance artist, and appeared at performance-art venues like the Kitchen–and partly, I suppose, because of his intensity: a dark, angry, urgent presence that could never be contained behind the fourth wall.

But Bogosian really wasn’t too avant-garde. Not by the time I saw him, anyway. For all the crazy energy and immanent violence he gave it, FunHouse was nothing more at heart than a series of character studies tending to suggest that it’s a jungle out there. Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin worked the same territory in a somewhat lighter vein. So did Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason, for that matter.

His more recent Talk Radio doesn’t even offer a pretense of being avant-garde. Written by Bogosian and originally performed with him in the central role, this script about a night in the life of a Morton Downeyoid radio-talk-show host looks an awful lot like his attempt to move more cleanly into the mainstream.

The setting and time are, for one thing, rigorously naturalistic: whatever happens here happens within the confines of a Cleveland radio studio on a single evening. There’s a string of consecutive, related events–if not exactly a plot line–as well as ten onstage roles, which are meant to be played by not just one but ten actors. The talk show host, moreover, is designed to be your standard Pagliacci type, crying on the inside as he’s sniping at callers on the outside.

The play, in short, is a play, in what’s come to be the familiar sense of the word. Thoroughly conventional, and not a little bit maudlin.

And yet, just as it made FunHouse look daring, that peculiar Bogosian anticharm managed to turn Talk Radio into an intriguingly nasty, itchy piece of work. Granted, I didn’t see Bogosian onstage in Talk Radio; I saw him in the movie version, directed by Oliver Stone, which diverges in some important respects from the original. But those divergences don’t account for Talk Radio’s redemption; if anything, they tended to forestall it. Bogosian’s voice and presence–Bogosian’s charisma–were what did the trick.

Unfortunately, the Chicago Actors Theatre doesn’t have Bogosian. Or even an adequate Bogosian substitute. This young, young, very young company has Mark McDonough–who may be competent, but at this point utterly lacks the equipment he needs to bring off the role of supercombative, slightly unglued talk show host Barry Champlain.

McDonough expresses none of the drive, none of the style, none of the anger, irony, egotism, cynicism, magnetism, slickness, bitterness, shallowness, weariness, loneliness, playfulness, guile, self-pity, self-hate, or humor–none of the horse’s ass/tragic complexity required to make Champlain just a little bit interesting. His performance is emphatic but centerless. All manner and no urge. Champlain is a guy with demons–or, at the very least, a certain devilishness: we’re told he’s supremely energetic; that he played “Let It Bleed” 25 times, consecutively, back in his underground radio days; that he clenches and unclenches his fists in his sleep, all night long. But as McDonough plays him, he’s simply a guy with a microphone–so inert, he seems to go blank between the lines. This Champlain abuses his callers, his coworkers, himself, and we have no idea why.

McDonough’s failure infects everything around it. Deprived of our main focal point and distraction, we look around us and notice how static the stage picture is, how hokey the supporting roles, and how certain apparently important issues–like the fact that Champlain’s show is about to go national–either get dropped or go nowhere. Bogosian’s pyrotechnics hid all that. Or helped us ignore it.

The director, CAT co-artistic director K. Lynn Johnson, told her opening-night audience that “the playwright is the first voice of the theater.” This show disproves that contention. Bogosian the playwright very cannily wrote Talk Radio as a vehicle for the particular skills, talents, and energies of Bogosian the actor; and without Bogosian the actor–or someone as good as him–around to suss it out, nothing written here means shit.