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.

In 1993, composer Marvin Laird and director/lyricist Joel Paley won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical with Ruthless!, their delightfully twisted look at show business. Shortly before her death two years later, Norma Paley accepted her son's Carbonell Award for his direction of the critically acclaimed production of Ruthless! staged at Miami Beach's Colony Theater. To honor her memory, Paley decided to write a musical based on his mother's experiences with her synagogue's amateur productions. The resulting world premiere, It's Bashert!, now at Broward Stage Door Theater in Coral Springs, proves that Paley is a good son but a bad dramatist -- he lovingly re-creates a "temple" revue while reining in the arch wit required to spoof the form. The show's title translates from Yiddish as "meant to be," but it's hard to figure out just what its creators mean it to be: a hip sendup or a calculated attempt to target the area's significant population of Jewish theatergoers? The confusion doesn't stop there: Despite the glossary of Yiddish terms included in the show's program, many in the opening-night audience quickly felt left out of the Jewish in-jokes. Now, a shiksa like me should know from Yiddish? Don't be a messuggana! Still, plotz at this mishegos I didn't.

Get the idea? For two hours.
The musical starts out promisingly enough with out-of-work director Christian Von Trapp (Stephen G. Anthony) singing the lively, tongue-tripping patter song "How to Be a Yiddisha Cup." Cramming to pass as a Jew so that he can get a job directing Temple Ahavat Tsuris's entry in the Golden Tchotchkeh Awards competition (the pinnacle of synagogue show business), he quickly wins a welcome from Sadie (Elaine Bleiweiss) and the rest of the temple's sisterhood, who sing "Eat a Little Something." In addition to working with untrained actors, Christian must contend with his feelings of guilt about his estranged wife and daughter, Sadie's regrets about her son's death, and the nosy interference of Mitzi Katz (played in drag by Paley under the pseudonym G.G. Spelvin) from the rival Temple Beth Meyerson. Once Christian's rehearsals get underway, It's Bashert! drops its comic voice-overs and over-the-top numbers, leaving the actors to switch gears and play the material straight. Gone, too, are musical numbers about the characters, as the focus shifts to the musical-within-a-musical. Soon it's kick lines and twirling shovels for "Plant a Tree for Israel," followed by a would-be Ziegfeld girl singing "Borschtbelt Bubby" from under a giant headdress as she holds a scale model of a Catskills resort. It's Bashert!'s cheap, slapdash sets add to the temple revue's realism; likewise, the production's six supporting actors are perfectly typecast as talentless temple stars with weak singing voices and hesitant deliveries. Anthony winningly struggles to make Paley's predictable story interesting, while Paley himself provides some much-needed camp in the guise of the competitive diva Mitzi, who squirms in horrified delight to overhear Christian reliving memories of Easter.

But it's questionable if any amount of talent could overcome Joel Paley and Phil Lebovits's tepid book and lyrics, or Marvin Laird's instantly forgettable music. The production needs sharper casting, slier direction, and more lines such as the motto of Christian's agent -- "If you've got talent, I get ten" -- to underscore the parody and draw a mass audience. When viewed with such a slant, the sophomoric book and score might be laughably bad instead of just dismally mediocre.

I applaud the motivations behind Paley's musical, even if I can't muster much enthusiasm for its execution. My advice is to pass on It's Bashert! and spend the time visiting, calling, or writing your mother. Be a mensch; she'd love to hear from you.

It's Bashert!
Book and lyrics by Joel Paley and Phil Lebovits; music by Marvin Laird; directed by Joel Paley; with Stephen G. Anthony, Hollie Berger, Elaine Bleiweiss, Howard Elfman, Walter Muntner, Joel Paley, Harvey Phillips, and Dee Wilson-Bunn. Ongoing. For more information call 954-344-7765 or see "Calendar Listings."

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.
Written by Eric Bogosian; directed by Elena Maria Garcia; with Jerry Seeger. Through June 22. For more information call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.


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