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Falls Rises

Date: Mar 05, 2007


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Geography may not be destiny, but can it be a coincidence that the theatre director Robert Falls hails from the City of Big Shoulders? For 20 years the imposing Falls, to whom the adjective "bearlike" is often applied, has served as artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, but in the past decade he's also become a familiar face in New York. He's brought Goodman productions to Broadway, such as 1998's Death of a Salesman and 2002's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and he's worked for hire on such auspicious and widely varying productions as the 1996 revival of Night of the Iguana, Disney's Aida and, last season, Conor McPherson's Shining City.

This week Falls is putting the finishing touches on a Broadway revival of Eric Bogosian's 1987 play Talk Radio, starring the mercurial, Tony-winning Liev Schreiber (a man of non-petite shoulders himself). For a director most commonly known for productions of larger-than-life scale and ambition--such as last year's ultraviolent, contemporized revival of King Lear at the Goodman, starring Stacy Keach--does Talk Radio, which is essentially a solo show with a voiceover chorus, seem like a relatively small canvas?

"It's certainly got just one set, but it's hardly naturalistic," Falls says. "You've got Liev Schreiber dead center talking to a variety of callers who are in the basement," referring to a quintet of voice actors who play the late-night callers into the radio show hosted by Barry Champlain, Schreiber's character. Falls, who saw the original production at the Public Theatre, says the play showcases a fascinating stage in Bogosian's development as a writer: "Here you can see him making the transition between his monologue work and playwriting."

Indeed, Schreiber auditioned for Bogosian's 1994 play SubUrbia and famously didn't get the part (no hard feelings, obviously), and Falls later directed the premiere of Bogosian's Griller at the Goodman. "We're both enormous fans of Eric," Falls says of himself and his lead actor. "Talk Radio was obviously originally written as a vehicle for Eric to perform. But working with an actor like Liev, who's got extraordinary instincts, you start to see what a remarkable play it is. Some friends of mine who saw the show recently said they were amazed how, while it certainly felt like an Eric Bogosian work, it was completely transformed by Liev's performance. It fits like a glove."

When Bogosian wrote the play in the late 1980s, "talk radio" had been around for a while: The fictional Barry Champlain reportedly contains elements of the assassinated Denver radio host Alan Berg, as well as of pioneering on-air gabber Tom Leykis. But Bogosian's play--soon after adapted into a film directed by Oliver Stone--anticipated the nationwide popularity of shock jocks like Howard Stern and Don Imus, not to mention the rampant rightward politicization of the airwaves via such personalities as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

"The play is incredibly prescient and timely," Falls says. "It was definitely ahead of its time. It's a play about the emotions and loneliness and despair and human comedy that drives our current culture--the desire to be famous, even for just five minutes on the radio. The play captures what our mass media would become, and has become."

Falls says he relishes the chance to go between his Chicago home base and the hurly-burly of New York's commercial and nonprofit theatre. "It's what has continually kept me refreshed and energized," he says. "It's great to get away for a while, and great to come home; you learn to appreciate both things."

What is it about Chicago that produces so much robust theatre?

"I've said this before, and it's true: It's a place where you can neither really succeed nor really fail. It's a tremendous, vital city on all fronts. But it's a place where artists get up in the morning, do their work, and then move on to their next work. If it happens to get celebrated, great, but it doesn't become a huge break in your career, or become overwhelming. Theatre just becomes part of what you do. That's what has made Chicago such a healthy community."

The big shoulders probably don't hurt, though.

"Talk Radio" opens March 11 at the Longacre. More information here.