Soho Stage

The only experience I’ve had with monologuists (as I guess they’re called) is with Spaulding Gray, whose work I love. I’ve never seen him in person, but I’ve read Swimming to Cambodia and seen the movie, which was marvelous, and I’ve read his other book of monologues, Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen. And I’ve seen the Acting Company perform Orchards, in which a Spaulding Gray monologue was performed by another performer, and it didn’t work. Gray writes for himself, using his own experiences and his own quirky thought associations. Watching someone else try to do his work can be like watching Cinderella’s stepsisters with the slipper. No matter how they poke and fuss, it just doesn’t fit.

So I was a little afraid of seeing Soho Stage perform Drinking in America. Eric Bogosian, like Gray, is as much a part of his pieces as the words themselves. But Soho Stage’s production proves that it’s not just Bogosian’s performance skills that make his monologues work. His talent as a writer is also formidable, creating characters who are pathetic and dignified, horrifying and sympathetic all at the same time. And all of them are dazzlingly real.

Soho Stage’s Drinking in America is a series of monologues held together by taped voice-overs. In each act five monologues, with four segueing voices, are performed. The voice-overs are reminiscent of the old National Lampoon Radio Hour. They are all spoofs on commercials, satirizing American culture through our taste in material goods and advertisements. The monologues themselves are more reality oriented–less sarcastic, but no less biting. Most of the characters, though very real, are very ugly–portraits of an America we wish didn’t exist. Starving Children starts with a stereotypical televangelist who wears ugly, strange-colored polyester. Just when we’re getting comfortable with our scorn for her, she starts talking about starving children and how we watch them on TV as we eat an extra slice of pie. A piece called Our Gang consists of the ramblings of a young street kid as he gleefully recounts his adventures of the previous evening, complete with car crashes, drugs, knifings, and looting.

Bogosian’s America is most clearly defined in American Dreamer. Here a street drunk has a chance encounter with a couple and ends up sounding like Saturday Night Live’s compulsive liar. As he makes up a life for himself, a life that is twisted and perverse but is his golden dream of paradise, he says about himself: “I do what everyone wants to do. I drive around in my limo and watch TV and I lean back and get high–and pass out.” It is this aspiration to spiritual perversion that Bogosian captures. The America he reveals is one of poor, needy folks, either in spirit or in body. And it seems all too accurate. Somehow, though, Bogosian manages to make it funny. He pushes his characters almost to the point of absurdity, but doesn’t allow them to cross beyond the limits of truth.

Director Patrick DiRenna has done a wonderful job in casting and direction. All of the performers are up to the material. Each made interesting choices and went at them with zeal and commitment.

DiRenna himself performed the two most memorable pieces of the evening. In Journal, he captures the pain of lost ideals as a businessman who discovers an old journal. His street punk in Our Gang is just as moving, forcing us to understand the emotional disengagement behind senseless violence. DiRenna uses no acting tricks in either of these pieces. He has a simple, straightforward delivery that allows the words to speak for themselves. He played two radically different characters and found the truth in each. Cas Recio also did a superb job as an alcoholic street person in American Dreamer. He was pathetic in his honesty, a character familiar on many streets in Chicago. Tim Carroll’s Jack Nicholson-like portrayal of a mass murderer in Shining Star was also memorable. The two women, Molly Reynolds and Donna Harrison, had slightly less interesting material, although they dealt competently with what they had.

DiRenna has made a comfortable and interesting theater space at Soho Stage. His choice of music for preshow and intermission set the tone for what was to follow. If Drinking in America is an indication of what he has in store for his new theater company, we can look forward to some interesting new work.