From the moment Liev Schreiber comes blasting onstage, dressed in black and barking profanities, his performance as a shock jock in Talk Radio is diabolically good. But does it prove that he’s “the finest American theater actor of his generation,” as the Times called him last week? With so many extraordinary actors his age still on the rise, it’s hard to agree. But this is no slight to Schreiber, who does something a lot more important here than climb the great-thespian leaderboard. As Barry Champlain, the corrosive call-in host of Eric Bogosian’s play, he establishes himself as something that Broadway has long needed: a genuine, no-fooling, real live drama star.
Musical theater has its share of heroes, like Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald. Not so Broadway’s straight plays, where very few actors lately have demonstrated the mix of talent, personality, and audience rapport to generate that kind of star wattage. Schreiber has shown in prior roles that he’s got each of those qualities: Here, in his first real leading performance on Broadway, he nails the combination.
Schreiber’s great skill, and the main source of his stardom, is his ability to crawl under somebody’s skin. As Barry celebrates the news that his show is going national by spewing even more aggression than usual, Schreiber gets to flash both the stiletto and the machete. When he taunts a caller who has a college education, he adopts the singsongy, know-it-all lilt of Bill O’Reilly. Off the air, he rampages around the studio throwing stuff—genuinely menacing behavior from an actor this tall, imposing, and convincingly enraged. As in his Tony-winning turn as an oily salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross two years ago, the more despicably his character behaves, the harder it is to look away.
Yet like all real stars, Schreiber doesn’t vanish into his role; glimmers of his personality remain. As in Macbeth last summer, he sometimes punctuates Barry’s tirades with a signature gesture: a quick, self-conscious smile that gives us a peek at the vulnerability under the tough façade. This knack for introspection serves him beautifully as Barry’s loony, desperate callers start turning him into the Miss Lonelyhearts of radio, a man so broken he chases Jack Daniel’s with Pepto-Bismol.
But if Liev is always at some level recognizably Liev, it’s because nobody but Liev has those pipes. Director Robert Falls shrewdly funnels the sound from Barry’s on-air mike into the Longacre’s speakers, making it feel as though the entire audience is surrounded by—is actually within—that booming voice. Bogosian’s play doesn’t amount to very much—battering Barry for two hours without generating any resonance you take home with you—but as long as Schreiber’s talking, you don’t really mind. I mean, he can make even the phrase boob tube sound regal: Who better to play Orson Welles in RKO 281 a few years back?
The ineffable last source of his star power lies outside the performance, in how he relates to us—or rather we to him. Entrance applause usually seems even sillier to me than cheap standing ovations, but when Schreiber walked onstage, his greeting had an edge I’d never heard before. It didn’t sound like the endless clapping that forces Meryl Streep to come up with something to do with her hands until the noise dies down; it was more like the way you cheer somebody who’s headed to the free-throw line, trailing by a point, with half a second to play. Be excellent, it seemed to say: Do us proud.
I can’t prove that everyone was trying to simultaneously embrace Schreiber and lift him up—the dual action that audiences always perform on stars—but, well, why wouldn’t they? Here’s a longtime New Yorker who’s young, dynamic, and already has a record of playing tough guys with style. In all these ways, Schreiber represents for Broadway today something like what De Niro represented for the New York film 30 years ago: an actor who captures our imagination for all the right reasons, whose work makes the hometown a little more vivid. Maybe in time he’ll manage to be the greatest, maybe not; what delights me is that Broadway has become a slightly more exciting place to watch him try.