nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 23, 2006
The first act of Eric Bogosian's subUrbia is mostly a slice of life, late one night in a small town somewhere (we presume) in America's Heartland. We meet, in rapid succession: Tim, 21, a recent vet of the War in Iraq, who now spends his aimless days drinking; Buff, timelessly young (though about Tim's age), a likable goof-up who works at a pizzeria; and Jeff, Tim's best friend, probably no smarter than the others but more aware of the world, his aspirations, and his seeming failure to get anyplace in his life so far. As Kenneth Lonergan put it in a play that came out shortly after this one first did (in the mid-'90s), this is our youth.
The situation that propels the happenings of subUrbia is the imminent arrival of "Pony" (Neil), the local boy-made-good. He and Jeff started a rock band together a few years back (though Pony will later dispute that fact); now Pony is a bona fide star, touring the country, raking in the bucks, and becoming famous. Sooze, Jeff's girlfriend, has arranged for the gang to meet up with Pony after a concert he's giving at a nearby arena. She arrives with her pal Bee-Bee at the designated meeting place (where all of the play occurs, in fact)—the parking lot in front of a convenience store, a spot that this group has obviously considered "theirs" for quite some time, much to the consternation of the store's current management, a Pakistani brother and sister who monitor the white kids' activities warily from inside the shop.
Up until the time that Pony arrives, subUrbia ranges around a bunch of topics, from the enormously serious to the egregiously trivial, as the old friends talk, argue, make up, and goof around:
BUFF: Every morning while I'm doing my abs I check out Sesame Street. There's this babe on the show, she's like a total fox. Saw her on a porn site.
JEFF: An actress on Sesame Street is on a porn site? What's her name?
BUFF: "Tiffany," "Brianna." I don't know, man! I saw it, with my own dick. There's this website, I charge it to my mom's phone? Unlimited porn links. Surf the net with one hand, choke the chicken with the other. Hey, speaking of choking the chicken, guess who I saw at the mall yesterday? "The Duck."
JEFF: "The Duck"?
BUFF: Remember? The guy who could blow himself.
JEFF: Oh God, right! What was he doing at the mall? Still blowing himself?
BUFF: Giving out pamphlets man. He's a yoga instructor now.
JEFF: Remember Fred Pierce? Buff says he's gay now.
TIM: Fred Pierce was the best running back we had, no way is he a fag.
BUFF: Yeah, well he isn't running anymore. He's in Marcy Memorial. Something's wrong with him.
It is, thus, very lifelike; it reminded me of Chekhov in the way that these young people dance all around their issues and problems without actually making a move to do anything about them. Indeed, just before the above exchange, Jeff says:
It's my duty as a human being to get pissed off. Not that it makes any difference in the first place. Nothing ever fucking changes. Fifty years from now, we'll all be dead and there'll be new people standing in this same spot drinking beer and eating pizza, bitching and moaning about the price of Oreos and they won't even know we were ever here. And fifty years after that, those suckers will be dust and bones.
See what I mean?
Pony's entrance with his gorgeous blonde publicist Erica, near the end of Act One, sends the play in a different, troublesome direction, however. Suddenly Bogosian wants us to believe not only that this one kid could make good, which is plausible, but that all the rest can find transformation in a single night as well. Erica comes on to the drunk and sullen Tim; Pony comes on to Sooze; Buff, the very epitome of slackerdom, is offered a gig making videos in Hollywood. Plus a whole bunch of melodramatic stuff involving assault, guns, and drug overdoses that I don't want to detail lest I give some of the plot's surprises away. Are we really supposed to believe all of this? I know I didn't: the lyrical, wistful exploration of the latest lost generation has given way to LaLaLand soap.
There are, though, some terrific performances to savor in this production of subUrbia, such as Peter Scanavino's wolflike take on the restless Tim, Manu Narayan's fully-fleshed out portrayal of the convenience store owner Norman, and Daniel Eric Gold's sad, smart loser Jeff. Stealing the show, however, is the immensely charismatic Kieran Culkin, who as Buff literally bounds all over the place with a boyish energy that's refreshing and, at the same time, a little frightening. He's an irresistible force of nature; it will be fun to see this gifted young actor as he grows into the star parts he's born to play.
Jo Bonney's staging keeps things swift and exciting, though some elements (as when Jeff strips naked, only to put all of his clothes right back on before anybody can see anything) seem sensational and/or arbitrary. Richard Hoover's set, which looks like half of an actual 7-Eleven mounted on a concrete slab where Second Stage's stage used to be, is visually impressive but does not really serve the play, restricting the action to a relatively small area of the space.
Bogosian has updated his 1994 script with lots of timely references to the Internet and the current war, but he hasn't revisited it in an organic way to update the characters; had he done so, these 20-year-olds might feel more contemporary than they finally come across. That's unfortunate, as is the playwright's inclination to veer from vivid impressionism to a more conventional, action-packed narrative. subUrbia could really tell us some insightful things about what it means to be 20 in America. But at least in this version, authenticity seems to have gotten away.