Roadworks Productions

at the Theatre Building

Our ImMEDIAte Family

at Cafe Voltaire

What would a group of go-get-’em Northwestern grads who’ve garnered six Jeff Citations and a handful of big-tuna foundation grants in a little over two years know about existential ennui? Apparently everything. Roadworks’s midwest premiere of Eric Bogosian’s grim Generation X portrait, SubUrbia, is so compelling in its despair it feels positively autobiographical–so much so that you might mistake this great production for a great play.

Bogosian, the sizzling New York bad-boy monologuist best known for his performance in Talk Radio, a film adaptation of his one-man show, plays nice with his newest offering, at least by his standards. SubUrbia is an utterly conventional slice-of-life drama about the dreamless night of disillusioned youth, complete with drug addiction, broken homes, false idolatry, and lots of self-loathing. Into the parking lot of a neighborhood 7-Eleven–icon of the great wasteland of Anywhere, USA– Bogosian drops a pack of suburban high school graduates with nothing to do but drink, joke, philosophize, threaten, hang out, and slowly unravel. SubUrbia is Slacker with brains, heart, and teeth.

Ten years ago, before Generation Xers became the flavor of the month, SurUrbia would have made quite a splash with its brutal portrayal of privileged youth hopelessly drifting and cynically devouring their own kind. Its New York premiere last year certainly sent critics into superlative-induced comas. But the play covers territory already well traveled by everyone from Richard Linklater to Douglas Coupland to People magazine. Moreover its discursive structure and focus on self-destructive behavior, hard drinking, and personal confessions make it nearly indistinguishable from almost every American kitchen-sink tragedy penned over the past 30 years. Works as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun, Less Than Zero, and The Graduate have already taught us that the American dream is a sham. SubUrbia is simply arriving too late on the scene.

This is not to say that Bogosian’s play isn’t compelling drama, or that his mixture isn’t volatile. The virulent prejudice of one character, for example, fueled by his own self-hatred, gives the play an explosive edge, especially as that bigotry threatens to erupt into violence as easily as the wind changes direction. Bogosian paints a troubling picture, and as always his writing is crisp and efficient. But we’ve seen this scene so often, its inner demons have been dragged into the media spotlight so many times, that it holds little fascination.

More problematic than the play’s derivative nature is its fundamental contradictions. One of the tragic features of Bogosian’s suburban world is its myopia. All roads double back on themselves, and the outside world–of urban life, of foreign lands, of adulthood–doesn’t seem very enticing, except in highly abstract or romanticized terms. But Bogosian considers little beyond the collapsed circumstances of his characters’ lives. The drama revolves almost entirely around whatever threatens the integrity of the group, from infidelity to past emotional traumas to suicidal tendencies. History here is personal history; this world has been hermetically sealed, divided from the larger social and political world in which it’s embedded.

Unfortunately this limited scope is typical of contemporary cultural analyses intended for a large audience, not only in the arts but in the mass media. Americans have always been fascinated with the plight of the individual, rarely with the systems and institutions that have helped put him there and keep him there. We want to “identify,” to know what it feels like to be someone else. And the mass media have consistently confused lurid emotional displays with in-depth truth–witness tragic media darling Kimberly Bergalis, or the never-ending procession of teary-eyed daytime talk-show guests. Ricki Lake wants to know how the welfare mom felt when she gave up her baby for adoption; but Lake isn’t interested in legislative maneuvers designed to restrict poor women’s access to abortion, which is what made the adoption necessary in the first place. Analysis just isn’t entertaining. Similarly, Bogosian wants us to know the darkest secrets of his admittedly fascinating characters; but the play leaves them stranded, without much context beyond the standard Generation X crises. Bogosian’s emotionally accurate, even powerfully moving pictures don’t contribute much to understanding the predicament of disillusioned youth.

But the nine extraordinary people in the Roadworks cast, meticulously directed by Abby Epstein, bring Bogosian’s insular script vibrantly to life. Just as designer Geoffrey M. Curley painstakingly re-creates a 7-Eleven parking lot, these actors never seem to be acting at all; you’d swear they were the real thing. Yet they exploit the orchestrated stasis of Epstein’s staging like musicians holding a two-hour caesura. The great expanse of blank brick wall at the center of Curley’s design gives his realistic set a nearly abstract essence, a la Edward Hopper; in like manner the actors distill their characters to the barest essentials, giving them full emotional lives without fussy detail.

SubUrbia demonstrates the enormous strides Roadworks has taken in two short years. Their previous work was weakened by uneven casts, with the poised Patrick McNulty typically setting the high standards. Now eight actors match his pace, performing with the precision of an Olympic diving team and the unrestrained spirit of a Baptist congregation. And Epstein has graduated from the pile-driver school of direction, evident in her decidedly unsubtle Lion in the Streets (an evolution all the more impressive considering that this directorial style was rewarded, as is so often the case, by the infinitely wise Jeff Committee). Now every “rock and roll” director in town can take a lesson from her on how to reach emotional heights without sacrificing clarity, economy, and nuance.

Like Bogosian’s suburban landscape, one could envision Cafe Voltaire’s basement performance space as hermetically sealed. Of the 50 or so productions I’ve seen there over the last few years, not one comes to mind that engaged the light-of-day social and political realities upstairs. I’ve seen fantastically imaginative work, but nothing that holds a candle to a quick glance through Harper’s Index.

Let’s hope Dane Hanson’s one-man show, Our ImMEDIAte Family, is a harbinger of change. This hour-long assemblage of sketches generally aims to dam the flood of American neo-conservative hysteria, satirizing the right wing’s penchant for self-aggrandizement, paranoia, and finger pointing. Fictional senator Jack Bennett, for example, introduces himself by saying, “You may know me as that really handsome guy who happens to be in politics,” then suggests a slight revision in the Statue of Liberty: rather than holding a torch and a book, she should flip the bird and display a placard reading Keep Out.

Much of Hanson’s commentary is glib (boiling down the philosophy of Dianetics to “being sick is your fault”), and some of it devolves into bathos. A homeless man, for example, helplessly intones that he “had a life” over and over to a crowd of uncaring passersby. And what any of it has to do with the media’s effect on American life, which press materials suggest this piece is about, remains unclear. But Hanson’s offhand delivery and charming presence get him through even when his material wanders. With a sharper eye and a more discriminating wit, he might deliver on the promise of a truly engaged theater of issues.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Wayne Cable.