Radio, TV: grist for two stage plays

Theater is more intimate than TV or radio. Yet stage directors seem increasingly drawn to mass-media techniques - as a subject and as a theatrical device. The trend continues in two new plays: ``Talk Radio,'' written by and starring Eric Bogosian at the Public Theater, and ``It's a Man's World,'' presented by the experimental Mabou Mines troupe. ``Talk Radio'' centers on one Barry Champlain, a broadcaster who's rude, foul-mouthed, abrasive, bigoted, and egotistical - qualities that mean fame and fortune in some inexplicable byways of the radio world.

Listeners dial his number and state their questions, comments, or complaints. Then they start hearing his views, liberally laced with vulgarity and abuse of themselves. He insults their intelligence, their personalities, their morals, their relatives, and anything else that comes to mind. Occasionally he'll treat a complimentary caller with oily respect - only to give the impression that he's a sweet guy, deep down. Then it's on to the next call and the next barrage of nastiness.

Why do Barry's callers put up with - even ask for - this kind of treatment? Nobody's more puzzled than Barry himself. But he doesn't argue with success, and his ratings are high. In fact, his show is about to go national (from its Cleveland base) so Barry can start bad-mouthing dialers all over the United States.

Despite competition from TV and other media, radio is a pervasive (sometimes invasive) force in modern life. Broadcasters like Barry have fans in many places and are a tantalizing subject for study. What gives ``Talk Radio'' passion as well as insight is the presence of Mr. Bogosian in the leading role. Bogosian is obsessed by the voices of today's America and has made them the centerpiece - via his amazing gift for vocal expression and mimicry - of such ``performance art'' pieces as ``FunHouse'' and ``Drinking in America.''

Bogosian has tailored ``Talk Radio'' to his particular talents, and his portrayal of Barry Champlain is a marvel of energy and commitment. Yet this is a full-fledged play that's much broader in scope than Bogosian's earlier solo shows. As we watch Barry jabber his way through his last evening of airtime before going national, we meet members of his staff - his producer, his assistant, his engineer - and hear their own impressions of this gifted, scary man. These are delivered in monologues that build unexpected intensity and carry the play beyond a merely realistic depiction of Barry at the microphone.

The supporting cast is generally fine, in onstage roles and as disembodied voices representing Barry's call-in listeners. Barry's voice is ``miked'' most of the time, reminding theatergoers that radio-type technology exerts a strong impact on stagecraft nowadays. Additional atmosphere comes from slide projections (low-tech, but quietly effective) on the rear wall of Barry's sterile studio.

Mass-media devices play a larger part in ``It's a Man's World,'' written by and starring Greg Mehrten of the Mabou Mines company. Onstage video cameras follow him (and other performers) through much of the action, which centers on a daytime TV star who loses his job and sense of security when his homosexuality becomes known.

``It's a Man's World'' is a timely play, given contemporary concerns about sexuality in the lives of public people. The script rambles a lot, though, and Mr. Mehrten's sincere performance doesn't compensate for the slackness with which David Schweizer (not a Mabou Mines member) has directed the play.

The drama, which includes some nudity and much frank language, is on stage at the Apple Corps Theater.

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