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A CurtainUp Review

I’ve seen the ’third world’, man. Those places smell like you wiped your ass and made a country out of the paper.--- Tim
Kieran Culkin & Daniel Eric Gold (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Eric Bogosian's 1994 play SubUrbia is back for a limited time and it’s a stunner, beautifully acted by a terrific ensemble and excitingly staged by Jo Bonney. I didn't see it twelve years ago in its much praised premiere at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. For some long forgotten reason, I also failed to see the equally praised film version released in 1996. Therefore I looked forward to this new, updated production at the Second Stage Theatre. not for the chance to make comparisons but because it would be all new to me.

What a revelation the play is and will be to those who may only know Bogosian as a provocatively gritty in-your-face writer and solo artist performing in such characteristically defining plays as Drinking in America, Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead and others. Bonney, who is married to Bogosian, has been a significant artistic collaborator on many of his plays and proves once again her directorial instincts are right on target in this wrenching look at angry, socially disengaged youth.

In their early 20s, the characters congregate to both bait and bash each other unmercifully and also banter relentlessly through the night and into the next morning in front of a 7–Eleven. They are literally testaments to the long-festering anguish, frustration and contempt that a good many young people presumably feel toward the society in which they live. While these discontents consume the usual amount of pizza and beer and feed their sexual appetites, they are also experts at spewing anti-social slurs and epithets around with a deliberate abandon.

Pivotal are Tim (Peter Scanavino) and Buff (Kieran Culkin). Tim is an alcoholic ex-army vet who pushes around a hockey stick but mostly provokes his pals. Buff is a jittery literally off-the-wall chap on roller blades with a negligible talent for video recording ("I’m a independent filmmaker ("I ripped off a camcorder up at the mall"), but with a real flair for flinging his body off walls and around poles. They, in particular, take pleasure in distressing Pakeeza (Diksha Basu) and Norman (Manu Narayan), the hard-working diligent Pakistani proprietors of the 7–Eleven who attempt to go about their business but are drawn into violence.

The women who hang out are no less a mess. Gaby Hofffman is affecting as Sooze who is desperate to get away from the unnamed suburb and envisions herself as a New York performance artist. Halley Feiffer gets the pathetic award as Bee-Bee, the romantically abandoned, dubiously rehabilitated ill-fated drug addict.

Watching this misspent crowd littering up the front of the store, even puking when the need arises, is the least of the issues that frame this feverishly driven play. These are nihilists with a deep-seated resentment to the foreigners who they feel are the cause of their despair and deprivation. Propelled by their sexual energy and woozy dreams, they are self-programmed for defeat by way of their narrow, insular perspectives. Their prospects for tomorrow are dim if not altogether doomed.

This may be a view of nihilism run amok, but it is also keenly objectified by the words and actions of the introspective and inquisitive Jeff (Daniel Eric Gold), an aspiring writer, and the only one completing college, albeit by taking one course at a time. He appears as representative of the playwright.

The evening in question is special as it augers the return to the old neighborhood of Pony (Michael Esper), whose recent rise to modest fame as a rock musician,provides fodder for more unanticipated resentment than respect from his former friends. That Pony has his flirtatious blonde California girl press agent Erika (Jessica Capshaw) tagging along only tends to ignite a dangerous situation. One can see how Pony’s relative show business success, despite his minimal talent, also appeals to them as being easier than embracing an education for a productive life.

While all the performances stand out for their idiosyncratic dynamics, Scanavino, who made a distinctively quirky impression in The Moonlight Room, fuels the emotionally and physically damaged Tim’s alcoholic stupors with both irrevocable sadness and rage. As the hyper Buff, Culkin seems ever on the verge of bursting out of his own skin reflecting the most unbalanced and unnerving aspects of his unfocused life.

There are so many incendiary moments piled one upon another within this play that they tend to become a little numbing. As topical as the play was, it has undergone a little updating of references such Tim's "What the fuck are you so fucking upset about, fuckhead?" and Jeff's "Iraq! Darfur! Haiti! You ever watch the news?" As a result, SubUrbia remains strong, relevant, and an arresting and compact view of desperate lives trapped within a despairing void.

Richard Hoover’s set design with its exterior and interior of the 7–Eleven is a brilliant work of representational art, a virtual homage to pop artist Andy Warhol. It's given added dimension by David Weiner’s superb lighting.

Editor's Postscript. Like Simon, I also came to this production a virgin in the sense that I saw neither the Lincoln Center premiere or the film While I think Bogosian did all the updating needed to sustain his vision of these young people wasting what should be the best years of their lives, I feel that he's made the suburbs the scapegoat for the malaise that has been spreading alarmingly since before this play was written: The dumbing down of our youths wherever they live. Even more destructive than the malling of America is the fact that we spend more money on arms than education. Consequently, we have a school system that now more than ever lacks a curriculum that combines an appreciation of genuine art and culture and teaches the skills needed to do meaningful and productive work.
-- Elyse Sommer.

By Eric Bogosian
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: Diksha Basu, Jessica Capshaw, Kieran Culkin, Michael Esper, Halley Feiffer, Daniel Eric gold, Gaby Hoffman, Manu Narayan, Peter Scanavino
Set Design: Richard Hoover
Costume Design: Mimi O’Donnell
Light Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Running Time: 2 hours plus an intermission
From September 7, 2006; opening September 28.
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Streetm 212/246–4422
From 9/07/06 to 10/29; opening 9/28/06. F
Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM.
Tickets $66.50; a limited number of specially-priced $25 student rush tickets are $10
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman September 23
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