'Talk Radio' echoes Imus flap

Theater roundup: Heavy themes predominate in 'Talk Radio' and 'The Year of Magical Thinking.' Witty 'Curtains' offers joyous song and dance.

Public personas clash with private ordeals in three current Broadway offerings. Each in its own way demonstrates how someone who operates in the public eye must sort out life-changing events, good or bad, and factor in how they're perceived by those who only know them by reputation.

The revival of Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian's 1987 off-Broadway shock melodrama, presents one tortuous night on and off the air for a loose-cannon talk show host who sticks his finger in everyone's eye, rather than hold it up to the wind to test the climate of prevailing attitudes.

Iconoclastic Barry Champlain is portrayed by Liev Schreiber in a crackling performance that manages to make the radio personality slightly sympathetic as he sets the late-night airwaves on fire. Outside his glass-walled studio are his horrified team, including an ambitious producer (Peter Hermann) ready to strike a deal to take the local Ohio show national and a sometimes girlfriend (Stephanie March) who serves as a producer. This go-for-broke "audition" night veers off the rails as Champlain spews steady invective and even invites a stoned teen listener into his studio for a brief, harrowing exchange.

Today, when the Don Imus controversy has prompted debate in defining what is acceptable behavior on public airwaves, "Talk Radio" presents, in full dysfunctional mode, a cunning operator who calculates the stakes and correctly concludes that what sells is whatever is reprehensible, particularly when it involves assaultive behavior and unapologetic, dehumanizing treatment of his call-in "fans."

Joan Didion's stage adaptation of her book The Year of Magical Thinking is meant to relate her escape from the pain of reality through a commingling of superstition, mythology, and denial. Eloquently described in her bestseller, she reports on grief, struggle, and lack of preparedness when both her husband and daughter die within a year of each other.

Playing a character named Joan Didion in this solo piece is Vanessa Redgrave, one of the few actors with the genuine professional gravitas to challenge this role. Redgrave navigates Didion's refuge in "magical thinking," a counterintuitive primitive practice by cultures who ascribe occurrences, or their possible reversals, to unrelated events. ("If we sacrifice a virgin, the rains will come.")

A play, however, requires what a book does not: dramatic impact. This is a distanced, journalistic account of grief, where lists and details crowd out emotions, yet Redgrave possesses so much craft that this shortcoming is almost overcome. Even so, the play's script allows memories to be recycled, lessening their power. And when Didion casually sprinkles in self-referential mentions of the elite world she inhabits (famous acquaintances, glamorous places she and her husband visited) it distracts us from sharing fully her personal, solitary grief and tortuous rehabilitation.

As Lieutenant Frank Cioffi in the sprightly new musical Curtains, David Hyde Pierce reveals his character's longing to join the world of greasepaint and footlights. While solving a string of murders hampering the tryout of a "new" 1959 musical in Boston, Cioffi also solves the show's ham-handed production elements.

If "Curtains" were a sandwich, it would be ham-on-wry. The production is billed as one of the final works by the legendary writing team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. But it's the book by Rupert Holmes that provides its delicious bite. Anyone familiar with Holmes's smartly crafted TV series "Remember WENN" will recognize the skillful layering of cultural references, witty wordplay, and character development through solid humor. In a cast that features stage veterans Jason Danieley, Karen Ziemba, Edward Hibbert, and Ernie Sabella, it's the indomitable Debra Monk who breaks through whenever she's on stage – especially in the Kander & Ebb powerhouse number "It's a Business," in which she defends her "ethics" as a "misunderstood" producer.

Every bit as entertaining as the other current theater homage, "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Curtains" achieves what the stage-struck lieutenant longs for: a perfect blend of song, dance, story, and laughs.

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