Harlan's in the "Times"



The Larynxes That Invaded Broadway

Michael Falco for The New York Times

“Talk Radio” voices, from left: Adam Sietz, Barbara Rosenblat, Cornell Womack, Christine Pedi and Marc Thompson.

Published: March 4, 2007

CHRISTINE PEDI is describing Debbie, the 15-year-old she plays in the revival of Eric Bogosian's “Talk Radio.” “She's kind of scrawny, wears tank tops and too much eye makeup, and thinks she's grown up,” Ms. Pedi explains in an interview. “She is too fond of Doritos. She's calling from her pink bedroom, where she has stashed all her teen stuff - her cigarettes and birth control.”

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Samples of commercial work by the voice-over artists mentioned in this article:

Marc Thompson as "Thelma" in a Citibank commercial
Adam Sietz and Christine Pedi as cows in a Silk soy milk commercial
Barbara Rosenblat reads "Tomb of the Golden Bird"

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Liev Schreiber, who will star in the play, which opens at the Longacre on March 11.

The play's set designer and prop master have not worried about any of those details, however, because Debbie is never seen. She is one of the play's 30 callers, brought to life by Ms. Pedi and four other voice performers.

In their line of work, Broadway roles don't come up every day, and for them “Talk Radio” feels like validation: the best voice-over actors can, with just a line or two of dialogue, make you see characters you can only hear, and juggle a range of accents more diverse than a Benetton catalog.

Though “Talk Radio,” which opens March 11 at the Longacre Theater, focuses on the shock-jock Barry Champlain (played by Liev Schreiber and originated Off Broadway by Mr. Bogosian), the callers “really are the heart and soul of the play,” said Robert Falls, the revival's director, adding, “The play is about voices in the night.”

While the actors auditioned, Mr. Falls shut his eyes. Later he grilled them about what room in the house they were calling from and what it looked like. The mental images were useful for the actors too.

“I have a full biography of all my characters,” said Cornell Womack, who plays, among other callers, a Hispanic cat lover and an elderly African-American man. He added: “These characters have real needs, and these calls come out of real places and real experiences. They're not caricatures. They're not just funny voices.”

If you missed Mr. Womack in his small part in “On Golden Pond” on Broadway last year, or in his recurring role on the FX Network's “Rescue Me,” you may have heard him in commercials for Hennessy V.S. Cognac or for the candy Creme Savers. (“I have the voice of a sucker,” he said, laughing.)

Ms. Pedi has appeared in “Forbidden Broadway” and does not always pretend to be on radio: She is a host of shows about Broadway on Sirius Satellite Radio. But like Mr. Womack she has a résumé of voice-overs, including a shared credit with another “Talk Radio” voice actor, Adam Sietz: In a recent commercial for Silk Soymilk, the two played talking cattle.

Mr. Sietz meanwhile can be heard in ads for Nestea, saying, “Ahhh.” He has recorded characters for video games and last year won Gamespy.com's best character award for Khelgar Ironfist in Neverwinter Nights 2. Mr. Sietz also had a small role in last year's revival of Neil Simon's “Barefoot in the Park.”

In “Talk Radio” his sole onstage appearance (the others have small onstage roles too) comes when the curtain rises. He is Sid Greenberg, the tax-adviser host of a show right before Barry Champlain's. When the tax show ends, Mr. Sietz switches from a bellowing announcer voice to a conversational voice, as if he were speaking through a bullhorn that was suddenly switched off.

After his exit Mr. Sietz dashes to one of three soundproof booths - built directly under the stage in the basement of the Longacre - to play Mr. Schreiber's first caller, a transvestite. Shrugging his shoulders and tilting his head in character, Mr. Sietz said, “He sounds a little like Harvey Fierstein,” sounding - equal parts gravel and honey - a little like Harvey Fierstein.

Audio acting has changed over the years. Harlan Hogan, author of “V.O.: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor,” has delivered familiar lines like “Raid kills bugs fast, kills bugs dead,” “It's the cereal even Mikey likes” and that Head and Shoulders chestnut, “Because that little itch should be telling you something.” When he started out in the early 1970s, “everyone had gigantic voices,” he recalled, adding: “I was only 25 years old. It scared the dickens out of me.” Today the most sought-after voices are not necessarily the most sonorous, but rather those that sound familiar and authentic. “It's less sell, more tell,” he said.

What begins as side work for extra money can turn into a lucrative career, said Johnna Gottlieb, a former voice agent who now works as a consultant and teaches a voice-over class at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “You can make $10,000 a year doing it, but there are people who make several million,” she said. “I've had clients do so well in voice-overs that they started turning down theater roles.”

Barbara Rosenblat has made a specialty of a kind of voice work that approximates acting. Ms. Rosenblat, whose characters in “Talk Radio” include an older Russian woman obsessed with people who don't pick up after their “doggies,” is among the audio book industry's most highly regarded narrators. Noting her knack for accents, the magazine AudioFile said Ms. Rosenblat “is to audiobooks what Meryl Streep is to movies.”

But while Ms. Streep nails one accent per performance, Ms. Rosenblat juggles many in a single page of a novel. “I remember one instance when Barbara was performing speakers from Thailand, Japan and China in a conversation, and she was able to make it very clear who was speaking,” said Claudia Howard, executive producer of the publisher Recorded Books.

Ms. Rosenblat last appeared on Broadway in “The Secret Garden.” That was in 1993. When she read about plans for a “Talk Radio” revival, Ms. Rosenblat hurried to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and parked herself in front of a monitor to watch a videotape of the original 1987 production. She was not watching quite so discriminatingly as she was listening. Then she had to get reacquainted with playing well with others.

“You are interacting with someone else,” Ms. Rosenblat said. “You don't have the same level of control. We are all cogs in a larger wheel.”

One of those cogs is Marc Thompson, whose callers include a disabled man speaking almost exclusively in clichés like “When they give you lemons, make lemonade.” A married father of two, he was a minister for the New York City Church of Christ when he was laid off two years ago. The future appeared bleak. “I looked at selling life insurance,” he said.

Instead Mr. Thompson, who holds an acting degree from New York University, started going on auditions. He had been doing voice-over work on the side while preaching and soon found jobs on MTV's “Daria” and the Cartoon Network's “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He may be most familiar for the Citibank identity theft commercial where two elderly women sitting on a sofa drinking tea have dubbed-in biker-dude voices. “I'm Thelma, the lady on the left,” he said.

When he received a callback for “Talk Radio,” he was elated, especially because he has limited stage experience. But then he realized he would probably have to reject any offer: the play is peppered with profanity, and Mr. Thompson, who still preaches on occasion, does not curse.

It turned out there were enough callers with mild language that he was cast anyway. “When they told me, I cried,” said Mr. Thompson, who, inevitably enough, ended up playing an evangelical Christian caller. “They've been really understanding and gracious. Two years ago I had nowhere to go. I feel blessed, and I think it's a miracle.”

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