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Drinking in America by Eric Bogosian (Vintage/Random House: $5.95, paperback; 172 pp.)

July 19, 1987|Paula Bryant | Bryant is a free-lance reviewer and critic.

Like Sam Shepard, performer/playwright Eric Bogosian helps himself to the iconography and idiom of American voices. Both artists are dynamic ventriloquists, shouting out our collective Angst in borrowed tongues that disturb and involve us. A manic mixture of Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin and Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian questions stereotypes by embodying them. We're forced to question our own carefully contrived boundaries when confronted with his fierce portrayals of addicts, winos, evangelists and yuppies whose inner tirades sound strangely like our own. Like Shepard, Bogosian uses an impassioned, surrealistic monologue to enact a provocative questioning of answers, rather than answering any questions.

"Drinking in America" is the double-entendre title of Bogosian's first solo performance to receive wide attention, and it is also the title piece of his new anthology of darkly humorous monologues. Witty, raunchy and often startling, "Drinking in America" won an Obie in 1986 for best new play and a Drama Desk award the same year for outstanding solo performance. Six months before it opened off-Broadway, Bogosian went on the road with his mordant satire of our private addictions and the hunger for connection that impels them.

I first saw him perform in San Diego when I was assigned to cover Sushi Gallery's Neofest 1985 for "High Performance Arts Quarterly." The 100-proof intensity of his comedy stung me then, and when I saw his new play "Talk Radio" in New York's Public Theatre last month, I was more convinced than ever that this tough, black-clad medicine man is pushing strong stuff. Our hangover from his triple shots is compassion.

This anthology gathers three earlier works in addition to the title piece, each made up of about 10 related monologues. "FunHouse" (1983), preoccupied with manifestations of power, from b1768366178Falwell-style polemic containing this telling pitch for cash: "Eighteen dollars a month, and you can end starvation in the whole world today. . . . The next time you see some starvin' little baby on the TV set . . . you can look all you want and say to yourself: 'It's not my fault!' "

The oblique "Men Inside" (1981) transfixes voices of cowboys, pimps and lone masturbators into a bizarre collage. An occasional poignantly absurd declaration stands out, this from a blue-collar family man: "That's why you gotta get married, Vinnie, you don't get married you're never gonna have a Christmas tree. Single guys, they don't got Christmas trees. . . ." "Voices of America" (1982) is a glib litany of media hype, including one salesman's hysterical pitch: "We've got realistic leatherette bones for Fido, electric guitars for the young rockers and fully automatic submachine guns for Uncle!"

"Drinking in America," the most recent work, emerges as the strongest to date. The most memorable monologue remains for me a teen-ager's offhand rundown of a weekend spree of drugs and terrorism, concluding with the closest he comes to emotion in his morass, an ode to the beauty of a trashed van: " . . . the fire's burnin', the stars, the 'ludes, my friends standin' next ta me . . . it was like spiritual or somethin'."

How can Bogosian pull off browbeating us with the replayed outcries of our own confusion? Perhaps the very confrontational nature of his approach is disarming. In his introduction to this volume, he describes the commando tactics of an early persona, slick entertainer Ricky Paul: "I would aim for what would upset and disturb my audiences--and then launch right into their worst fears and prejudices. . . . All I had to add was the energy. . . . I had nothing to say to anybody. Only questions." Bogosian's questions remain with us after his voices pause. Often his monologues contradict themselves, containing one or two lines that reverse the rest, confronting us with the fragile imbalance of human extremity.

How does a collection of scripts alone stack up with Bogosian in performance? Surprisingly well, with a few minor hitches. Of necessity, the written text lacks the drive of Bogosian's strong physical presence to push it forward. More avoidably, however, the addition of brief notes by the artist introducing each piece handicaps the innate excitement of his own scripts--the notes are trivial by comparison and intrude upon the reader's involvement. (This in comparison to Bogosian's artful nonverbal transitions in performance, which imply that there's no difference between searchers.) Bogosian's final "note on performance," concerned largely with props and costuming, is also somewhat superfluous. His language is most powerful when he allows his characters to take possession of him, and hence of us, allowing their own words to express our fears and longings.

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