On the Fringe

The parking lot of a suburban convenience store in the wee hours of the morning is nothing short of a study in vacuous earnestness. That's the serious, paradoxical joke at the heart of Eric Bogosian's blistering subUrbia, one of the best American plays of the decade. Theater LaB is so attuned to this tragicomedy that its southwest premiere becomes one of the best productions of the year.

Writer/performer Bogosian is acclaimed as a monologuist of the fringe, one who exposes and illuminates America's edges by letting piquant characters speak for their uncensored selves. In subUrbia, a traditionally structured play, he applies his shrewd powers of vernacular insight to what some of us call waste products: those not too far out of suburban high school whose very existence is defined by hanging out in front of the local convenience store, regardless of the time of day or of what the owner might think. Though these kids have nominal jobs, what they really work at is not doing anything. Over the course of a late-night evening, they mark their territory in ways that are outrageously comical -- until you realize that these souls are actually quite lost.

There's Tim, an alcoholic ex-serviceman full of volatile bravado, who cut off the tip of his little finger to qualify for disability benefits. He thinks he knows things because he's been places. Buff, a prototypical, like, you know, "dude," is happy-go-lucky in a manic sort of way. "Smoke, babe, vice, brew!" he titters, reeling off his mantra. On this night, Buff wants to get in the pants of airheaded Bee-Bee, a veteran of rehab. Her self-esteem is so low that she lets him. Bee-Bee's trouble keeping herself together also accounts for her best friend's being the overly confident, gorgeous Sooze, a would-be feminist performance artist who revels in announcing, "Cynicism is bullshit!"

"At least I have a point of view," she insists to boyfriend Jeff, the most reasonable of the bunch and the play's ostensible hero. Then again, Jeff dropped out of community college after taking one course in contemporary Nicaraguan history, so how thoughtful can he be? Jeff still lives at home; whenever his parents are eating dinner at Sizzler, Sooze comes over to have sex. It seems that a lecherous community college professor caught in a midlife crisis has complimented Sooze's "talent," prompting her to develop a pipe dream of moving to New York to attend art school. Jeff doesn't want her to go and won't come with her if she does. Struggling between being overly sensitized and being downright defeated, Jeff, who puts boxes together for a living, won't do "anything" unless it's "phenomenal." He profoundly cares about his life, but has no idea how to proceed with it.

As the characters interact, borrow their parents' cars and reminisce about study hall, they spill out their absurd theories and inane fixations. Homosexuals, one of them swears, get laid more than straight people. A Sesame Street actress, it's posited, does porn on the side. Bee-Bee (of all people) is a nurse's aide. "Usually they die," she expounds about the patients, "if they get really yellow."

The youths also harass the owner of the convenience store, a Pakistani immigrant not much older than they are who has the bastardized name of Norman. "He was practicing the Pledge of Allegiance," Buff snipes, "boning up for the big test." It means nothing to Jeff, Buff and Tim to use the word "dothead," and more than once, Norman is called "nigger" while the women observe. It doesn't dawn on them that they're encroaching on Norman and his sister, Pakeeza; it matters little, their thinking goes, that Norman and Pakeeza own the property where they hang out -- for how could they have rights if they're not "American"? For their part, Norman and Pakeeza refuse to be intimidated. The threat of violence is what gives the play much of its tension, and helps turn Bogosian's powerfully incisive dialogue into trenchant commentary.

Another source of tension and commentary comes with the arrival, toward the end of Act One, of "Pony," an old high school acquaintance to whom the clique was pretty much indifferent. Pony has since left suburbia, picked up a laughably inappropriate stage name and become a marginal rock star. Everyone, for different reasons, is anticipating his triumphant return, even though none of them end up attending his concert. Arriving in a limo, Pony refers to his vapid pop songs as "the work," as if they have integrity. He's come home for "inspiration," among other things.

Pony had a crush on Sooze in high school, and still does. He offers her the chance to design his next album cover, and Sooze looks at Pony anew. Jeff feels threatened, not only by the possible loss of Sooze, but also because he fancies himself a writer; Pony's active success (such as it is) makes him contemplate his own passive failure.

Buff hopes to direct one of Pony's music videos; he says he's qualified because "it's like the video is my head." Suffice it to say that Buff has never held a camera in his life. Nonetheless, Pony encourages him in his delusion. Meanwhile, Pony's sexy publicist, Erica, goes slumming with Tim because, as a monied person, she "can't feel anything anymore." When Tim tries to make the fling into something more, Erica switches to Buff, causing Tim, and Bee-Bee, to go into tailspins. One way or another, Norman and Pakeeza bear the brunt of much of this.

Bogosian's forte is creating characters too vulnerable to be merely crude, too confused to be merely detritus and too revealing to be merely types. Amid the mordant taunts, obsessive takes and immature posturings, his characters are strangely idealistic, romantic even, and however warped or damning or uncomplicated they may seem to be, they resonate because of the depths of their feelings. But more than this, in subUrbia, like in all his plays, Bogosian is ultimately interested in the American dream and how it can become a nightmare, in how people face up to, escape and reinvent themselves and in how much of life is bound up with connections, both made and missed. subUrbia is so piercingly funny that it is, finally, the stuff of tragedy, especially in the absurd, tough ending. What happens then, along with who gets the last word, is terrifically grim.

subUrbia is an inspired choice for Theater LaB: the company's intimate space and urbane audience match up perfectly with Bogosian's concerns. And from the cigarettes the cast lights in the dark of scene changes to the head-banging music of the soundtrack to the tableau of a curtain call, director Ed Muth finds the pulse of things again and again. With unerring confidence, Muth raises and lowers Bogosian's vividly mercurial intensity; he's so in rapport with the text, and the show feels so voyeuristic, that if I didn't know better, I'd swear Muth was just out of high school himself.

Rodolphe N. Zarka and John Delulio's set is a bodega of a convenience store, definitely the worse for wear. What passes for the storefront window is an intentionally shoddy, graffiti-laden mural of a counter scene. To the side of the store are a mangled public telephone and significant garbage. Even the store's lettering is scruffy and ironic. The set is a rundown marvel.

Exhibiting none of the self-indulgent excesses that have frequently ruined past efforts, Travis Ammons gives a deeply sympathetic performance as the burdened Jeff. Totally uninhibited, Randy Sparks as Buff winningly displays cheery energized abandon; he's id gone all gnarly. Christopher McDowell seethes with self-loathing as the self-destructive Tim, the actor's considerable pretty-boy good looks not getting in the way at all. Crystal Calderoni is a heartbreaker as the needily assertive fox, Sooze. The rest of the ensemble is more than proficient. Theater LaB's production of Bogosian's brilliant play is so scintillating that you don't even mind the strained Pakistani accents.

subUrbia plays through April 14 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

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Peter Szatmary