Before I saw New City Stage Company's production of
at the Adrienne
I wrongly remembered the play as a one-man show. Even after Oliver Stone's film adaptation and last year's Broadway revival featuring Liev Schreiber, the role of abrasive DJ Barry Champlain is so closely identified with its creator, performance artist (remember those?) and playwright Eric Bogosian, that its other characters barely register.
Of course, this is also partly because the play's other roles are written so clumsily they don't resemble characters as much as props that occasionally (for no discernible reason other than to justify their presence) come forward to address the audience.
These characters - an executive (Gene D'Alessandro's Dan), Barry's longtime assistant (Brian Anthony Wilson's Stu), a female associate with whom Barry is sleeping (Ginger Dayle's Linda) - periodically offer their insights on Barry's tormented genius, but none really know him, and worse yet, he doesn't seem to know himself.
Champlain, played here by Paul Felder, is based on the late Denver call-in radio host Alan Berg, murdered in 1984 by members of a neo-Nazi group. Berg's confrontational style fuels the dialogue, as Champlain bats aside caller after caller. His shtick is theater of cruelty made theater of the absurd; the nastier he gets, the more calls he receives.
In what ought to be a pivotal scene, Champlain allows a listener, the loose cannon Kent (Michael Brinkman), to join him in the studio. But rather than shaping this as the moment when the pit bull turns on its master, director William Roudebush plays the chaos for cheap laughs. Felder exhibits all the right reactions - fear, vulnerability - but with Brinkman's over-the-top cackling and gesticulating going on, who would notice?
This jokey approach is also the production's major flaw. With the exception of Wilson, determined to maintain a character instead of a cartoon, the supporting cast is more suited to the set of WKRP in Cincinnati than a tour of the long dark hours after the sun goes down on Ronald Reagan's "morning in America."
The menace, the foreboding, they're all there, but buried beneath layers of wrongheaded decisions. How are we supposed to take Champlain's psychic wounds seriously when Roudebush has him arguing with the human equivalent of SpongeBob SquarePants?
Felder relentlessly stalks the stage, brooding and savaging his companions and callers with equal vigor. And while watching Felder mow down a script is still better than watching most actors do just about anything, the pace leaves little room for glimpses of what makes Champlain's gears turn. We never get an answer to the question "Who is Barry Champlain?", which is OK. But after an hour and 40 minutes of getting little else in return, an even better question is "Who still cares?"
New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., through Jan. 11. Tickets: $20-$25. 215-563-7500 or