It was a tough opening night for the cast of “Talk Radio” at Actors Theatre of San Francisco. Anyone unfamiliar with Eric Bogosian’s acerbic play might not have known that lead actor Christian Phillips was valiantly trying to correct a technical glitch of the radio station set at the beginning of the show.
With expert, seamless ad-libs, Phillips, in radio talk-show host mode, asked for a sound engineer and gamely tried to keep things going before finally breaking that fourth wall and stopping the show for a few minutes.
The hiccup showcased what a fine actor Phillips is and how well he has gotten under the skin of his character Barry Champlain.
As the dissolute late-night shock jock, Phillips plays an impressive array of arrogance, self-loathing and unfettered ego. He also holds the power of the truth-teller, willing to call his callers on their lies, hypocrisies and isms — a baiting for which they both love and hate him.
It’s a bravura performance, which is ultimately underserved by both the script and the rest of the company.
A Pulitzer Prize nominee, playwright Bogosian opens strong and raw, evoking the brash, often offensive world of the Howard Sterns and Rush Limbaughs. It’s a stinging indictment of those who create and those who consume stupidity and suffering as the lowest common denominator for entertainment.
Unfortunately, the play’s swagger turns to sputter about three-quarters of the way through, leaving the viewer detached from Champlain’s downward dance with his demons.
This is particularly evident with the entrance of a deceitful young caller given access to the inner sanctum of the studio. The sequence and the eruption that it sets off feels stilted and false.
Also ineffective are a series of confessional, direct-to-the-audience insights by the people in Champlain’s life — his agent, his engineer, his producer and girlfriend — which offer nothing because they are delivered, either as directed or for want of skill, in a flat and affectless way, leaving them devoid of significance.
This imbalance makes for a challenging 100 minutes and Phillips can only carry so much on his sagging shoulders. ATSF is known for long runs of shows; this is one that director James Baldock might improve with time.
On the tech side, designer Biz Duncan has created an effectively grungy, careworn radio station set and costumer Tricia Gillespie carries that effect onto the actors’ wardrobes.
Once unkinked, the “on the air” studio feel was very effective, adding the right touches of disconnectedness between Champlain, the crew and the callers.
Where: Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; closes June 8
Tickets: $26 to $38
Contact: (415) 345-1287, www. actorstheatresf.org