Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

“Take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves,” says a man in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Eric Bogosian’s collection of character sketches. The monologue from which the line comes, “Live,” is spoken by a self-made house- and pool-proud suburbanite who defends his lavish lifestyle by claiming he’s upholding the American dream to inspire impoverished peasants overseas.

Now Bogosian has made this character and his credo of conspicuous consumption the basis of a two-act comedy-drama. Griller–presented in its world premiere this week at the Goodman–is the third full-length play for Bogosian, who’s best known as a monologuist. It takes place in the sprawling backyard of a suburban home in New Jersey, where Gussie, a wealthy travel agent, has become a local celebrity on the strength of his TV commercials. He’s celebrating both his 50th birthday and Independence Day in one big Fourth of July barbecue-and-fireworks blowout. “Take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves,” Gussie brays as he shows off his new $3,000 gas grill. And to be sure the luxuries are well taken care of: besides the cooker (which comes complete with ice maker and intercom), Gussie presides over a huge fieldstone house with ivy-covered walls, an immaculately manicured lawn guarded by huge hedges, a series of Warhol lithos of himself and his wife, and a swimming pool that, in Derek McLane’s hyperrealistic set, splashes real water.

The necessities, though, are in desperate disarray. When not flaunting his wealth, Gussie is prone to reminisce about the scruffy 60s, when he was a road manager for rock bands. Waxing nostalgic about bopping to Baez in the age of Woodstock and windowpane, Gussie is proud of his wild youth and happy to have survived it. “Things worked out,” he says with a rich man’s satisfaction. His troubled son Dylan disagrees. While his parents brag about their high quality of life–Gussie’s $3,000 grill is nothing compared to the materialistic Michelle’s $10,000 face-lift–Dylan and his older brother, Terence, are at the end of their ropes.

Terence is a stockbroker whose workaholism and impotence are driving his wife Roz–a onetime lingerie model who calls her husband “Mr. Softee”–into the track-marked arms of his brother, a struggling, strung-out East Village artist addicted to heroin and self-pity. (A master of the passive-aggressive guilt trip, Dylan lives off the cash handouts his parents give him behind each other’s backs.) Roz and Terence’s young son, Jeremy, screams for attention in ways that would be obnoxious if they weren’t so sad, while raspy-voiced Granma Betty, in the words of her spinster daughter Gloria, “pretends to be senile so we don’t notice she is.” Granma Betty has been diagnosed with cancer, a fact Gussie doesn’t want to face–and as long as she’s in Gloria’s custody he doesn’t have to, which is why he’s distressed that Gloria’s talking about joining a white-supremacist survivalist cult in Colorado.

Also inhabiting this dysfunctional Eden is a serpent. They call him Uncle Tony but he’s no relation, just an old army pal of Gussie’s late father. A bullet-headed cross between G. Gordon Liddy and Buddha, Uncle Tony is sometimes raunchily funny and other times just plain creepy as he ogles the women and eggs on the men, urging the whole clan to indulge its worst excesses. The kind of guy who recounts anecdotes about Nazi Alsatians’ tactic of eating their victims’ eyes and a Thai stripper’s trick of shooting Ping-Pong balls from her privates, this retired CIA spook is the family’s link to reality–the American policies of third-world economic exploitation and political terror that have made possible Gussie’s luxuries, or rather addictions. “Meat. Heroin. Money. What’s the difference?” declares Uncle Tony, making Griller sound like a cross between Neil Simon, David Mamet, and William S. Burroughs.

It’s a grim picture that Bogosian paints–and at its strongest, in the first act, it’s also a frighteningly recognizable portrait of our culture, cutting back and forth, in word and image, from domestic traumas to global horrors. But it’s darkly funny in the hands of Bogosian and director Robert Falls, who’s given the play the glib, confident touch of mid-60s Neil Simon comedies, which Gussie–and Bogosian and Falls–might have seen as a teenager. At first staging Griller like a Broadway sitcom of that period–the huge, detailed set evokes not only a suburban home but the complacent mind-set of an earlier era–Falls capitalizes on Bogosian’s gift (best expressed in his monologues) for both capturing a character’s comic essence and probing the raw nerve ends of his moral failings. Salted with funny, well-timed barbs and a few strong sight gags (a pepper grinder shaped like a gnome, a birthday cake adorned by a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, Gussie and Tony smoking phallic cigars as they prowl the patio with the air of proprietary lions, Jeremy playing air guitar with Granma Betty’s walker), Griller at its best crystallizes the delusions under which Gussie labors–like so many of his generation.

Beyond writing about the timeless theme of midlife crisis, Bogosian has turned his sights specifically on baby boomers–just as his 1994 SubUrbia (whose world premiere Falls directed at Lincoln Center) dealt with both youthful alienation in general and the slacker generation in particular. Certainly the gray-haired, ponytailed Gussie embodies what a New York Times review of the Rolling Stones this week called “affluent boomers nostalgic for a life none of them would go back to.” Griller’s sometimes sad, sometimes cynical take on the paradoxes of a once footloose generation now wielding power is all too appropriate in an era when a former Vietnam war protester has become the first president to be slammed with a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

But in the choppy second act Griller stops satirizing its targets and begins belaboring its points. Just when the play gets most serious, exposing Uncle Tony’s depravity (it was good of Bogosian to resist calling him Sam) in protecting U.S. interests abroad, we discover there’s no character we really care about. Because the flip side of Bogosian’s satire is caricature, shallow Gussie and his clan serve well as comic icons but never become fully developed human beings whose fate matters to us. In Bogosian’s attempt at an upbeat ending, Gussie finally starts taking responsibility, abandoning his alluring lifestyle and trying to reconnect with his loved ones. But during the drawn-out, floundering conclusion, it’s not clear whether Bogosian wants us to identify with Gussie’s renewed sense of purpose or laugh at it as one more instance of his posing.

Perhaps Griller will undergo revision, as is often the case with Chicago world premieres written by artists based on the east or west coast. If so, Bogosian needs to focus on his risky, currently unsuccessful attempt to shift from cartoonish satire to dark drama–this approach will work only if he uses the humorous early portions of the play to create believable characters. Ironically, the closest Griller comes now is the would-be cultist Gloria, played with deftly understated realism and poignance by Caroline Aaron, and Uncle Tony, who’s portrayed by Howard Witt with a bristling, vital intelligence that makes his fiendish amorality all the more frightening.

But the characters meant to engage us, though often sharply written, are still ciphers at this point. It’s difficult for Robert Klein (who, despite his reputation as a Second City-trained comic, comes off here as a straight man) to make Gussie’s life-changing experience register, or for the sibling rivalry between Terence (Marc Grapey) and Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and their sexual triangle with Roz (Nahanni Johnstone) to be anything other than predictable, or for Karen Valentine’s Michelle to seem anything more than a well-kept bimbo with too few laugh lines. (“You should have your own sitcom,” someone tells Michelle at one point, producing a knowing laugh from the audience that has more to do with Valentine’s trivial TV career than with her role.) And by the time Irma St. Paule’s withered Granma Betty delivers the play’s climactic eulogy for lost innocence, Griller’s fitful, protracted denouement has made the audience readier to leave than to listen.

With a set so real you want to go swimming and Mara Blumenfeld’s character-perfect costumes to complement Bogosian’s deft, shallow characterizations, Goodman has given Griller as spiffy a birthing as a playwright could wish. But these are luxuries, and what Bogosian needs to take care of are the necessities–human beings whose lives, though exaggerated for comic effect, will make an audience care enough to consider the tough truths the play communicates.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Liz Lauren.