City Sickos

I spent the Eighties on the subway, commuting from my what-I-could-afford studio apartment in Brooklyn to a series of all-we-can-offer-to-pay-you theater jobs in Manhattan. Which is how I became acquainted with the ranter. A large Jamaican woman in a pink raincoat and matching hat, she would take her customary place in the middle of the train car and start screaming unintelligibly, at auctioneer's speed, "THEDAYISCOMING!GETYOURSELFRIGHT!REPENT!" Each weekday at 9:30 a.m., she would get on at Borough Hall and rave all the way to her stop at 34th Street; then, in the evening, she would wail all the way back on the 6:30 train. Although I often wondered, I could never figure out if she held down a real job or if she commuted to keep workday hours wildly declaiming on a street corner in front of Macy's.

Some mornings I would arrive at work to hear an earnest intern advocating on behalf of "honest" theater -- theater that would depict real life in the city. After my daily encounter with the ranter and then walking from the subway through a gauntlet of de-institutionalized crazies, panhandlers, homeless people, and junkies, I could only shudder and think, "Who would buy a ticket to that?" As it turned out, a lot of people would -- and did. For five months in 1990, Eric Bogosian's gritty, sardonic view of urban life, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, played to packed houses off-Broadway and then went on to attract new fans with a film version released a year later. In the one-man show, writer/actor Bogosian brilliantly captured the city's paranoid Zeitgeist. His witty yet unsettling monologues depict a handful of edgy New Yorkers obsessed with clawing a foothold to protect them from falling into the widening chasm between the Trumps and the homeless. Now, in association with Imagine Stage Company, Hollywood Boulevard Theatre presents a captivating new look at Bogosian's urban menagerie, proving that, even beyond the Hudson, Eighties yuppies and Nineties Gen X-ers can find common ground in their fear of the future. As the pre-show sound tape winds down with the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," Jerry Seeger emerges to do just that. Wearing a gray T-shirt and black jeans, the 1991 graduate of Jupiter's Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training looks like a walking Gap ad -- except for the cigarette perched behind one of his two pierced ears. Quickly launching into Bogosian's first monologue, Seeger establishes that he's in earnest as his ex-con character successfully panhandles spare change from the folks in the front row.

Uninterrupted by an intermission, Seeger spends the next hour and a half assuming ten other identities. In one of the production's funniest moments, he becomes a pretentious English rocker who mouths all the correct twelve-step homilies and yet can't bring himself to seriously warn a TV talk show audience away from drugs. From his comfortable seat in front of the cameras, he pontificates about world poverty, a subject also on the mind of the homeless man who appears later. Eking out an existence nickel by nickel by cashing in recycled cans, this broken-spirited citizen still manages to be proud that the streets he sleeps on are American: "What do they dream about?" he wonders about starving Ethiopians. "Coming here, to America. It's better here. Ethiopia's too hot. Too many flies for me."

The characters in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll share many connections: a search for position, a loss of faith, and a dedicated pursuit of the title's good-time troika. The stud who sits with legs wide apart on his barstool and brags that women can't get enough of his physical endowments clings to sex for his identity, as does the neighborhood guy who throws his bridegroom pal a stag party that includes three bikini-clad girls, a half-pound of pot, a case of Jack Daniel's, champagne, cocaine, Quaaludes, and porno films co-starring household pets. Later, Seeger offers a searing portrayal of a high-powered corporate executive whose idea of phone sex is the rush he gets from using his cellular to threaten employees, belittle his wife, and control his mistress. While Bogosian will never win the Alan Alda sensitivity award, his comic takes on the loutish traits of American males are too integral to his clueless losers to be considered offensive.

Humor doesn't always mask the rage in Bogosian's urban jungle: A madman explodes about the excrement in the world's water supply; an unbalanced artist searches for equilibrium between Norman Rockwell's and Madonna's versions of America; a jailed homeboy learns his lesson and plans to pack an Uzi next time; and a perceptive artist gives up coping with life in favor of sitting stoned on the sidelines. As Tom Wolfe's cynical Bonfire of the Vanities (1986) and Terry Gilliam's allegorical The Fisher King (1991) used literature and film, respectively, to draw attention to the alarming differences between Manhattan's haves and have-nots, so too did Bogosian and other performance artists through their comic monologues. By 1990 the stand-up comedy caricatures of pimps and ghetto children created by Whoopi Goldberg for her 1984 self-titled one-woman Broadway show had evolved into Bogosian's wild bunch; in turn, his show opened the door a few months later to Spalding Gray's personalized view of an out-of-control world (Monster in a Box) and Karen Finley's angry feminist diatribes (We Keep Our Victims Ready). Intending to issue a wake-up call, Bogosian wanted his characters to be disturbing. But under Elena Maria Garcia's direction, Bogosian's cutting-edge script loses some of its slashing force, becoming a nonthreatening Gray Line tour of the Big Apple instead of a disquieting confrontation with the societal dropouts we work so hard to ignore. Employing subtle changes of voice and mannerism, Seeger maintains this comfort level by never moving too far from an established congenial center. And yet, even toned down, Seeger's talent shines through; in an authoritative, tour de force performance, he unearths the humanity in each character while at the same time conveying the script's pointed commentary. Bogosian's language remains as profane as ever, supplying more than enough color to brighten up Jerry Waxman's functional but stark set design of ramps and platforms. This production made me homesick for New York. It also reminded me of all the reasons I left. I know, it's only Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, but I like it.

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