Yo, Eric Bogosian. Still the master of nasty, my man. Still Mr. Mouth. Still dishing it straight up. Still def.
"Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead," which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, is the new multi-character monologue from the winningly warped mind of one of America's most talented soloists. It's just as expertly performed as the other shows for which he's become known over the past decade. And this one's full of nearly as much vinegar as those earlier outings, too.
But something's changed since Los Angeles last saw Bogosian on the Taper stage in 1991, with his Obie-winning "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll." The trademark hostility of Bogosian's men doesn't seem so out there anymore. Urban America's rage has caught up with his.
At the center of Bogosian's Theater of the Dude stands a black-clad man and his microphone. Alone on a bare stage, with just Paulie Jenkins' precise lighting and Jo Bonney's able direction, Bogosian metamorphoses into a gallery of grating guys, the kind you could get stuck with on a blind date to Bensonhurst.
From the simian subway panhandler who fixates on bodily excretions, to the horny Butt-head-esque dope dealer, to the upper-bourgeoise back-yard barbecuer with his goat cheese and roasted peppers, Bogosian's bozos are all mad as hell. Oblivious, too. It's a cross-class sampling of scumbags and hypocrites that nails the current paranoia and cult of the self. It also takes aim, though a less lethal one, at liberal babble.
Bogosian begins, metaphorically enough, as a dog who wants only "to be able to run around, hold my head up high and piss on things." Later, an evangelical dweeb named Phil blithers about inner babies: "They are rude, they are crude, they are selfish, and they are happy." The fella with the barbecue fork proclaims himself "the world's biggest liberal" while hollering at his wife and kids.
Bogosian shows just enough affection for his characters and mostly stops short of judging them. Which isn't to say there isn't favoritism: He invests his most \o7 lumpen \f7 creations with poetic inner lives while his professionals remain largely without depth.
The abundant laughter that Bogosian evokes, however, is almost entirely that of recognition. These personas never challenge the boundaries of what we already know about city life. And when everything is this familiar, nothing is really disturbing.
"Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead" is least challenging when Bogosian breaks character to become a version of himself, a type of direct address he hasn't typically used in previous shows. Early on, he welcomes the audience with a spritz of socially conscious patter, including, on opening night, references to still-raging firestorms and a riff on Third World hunger and other standard liberal concerns.
He's a first-rate observer of character, but when Bogosian tries to look at his own moral equivocations, the results are mixed. He backs off from the kind of surgical examination he gives his other guys. Anyway, who cares if he cares? His characters wouldn't give a flying fig, and neither do we.
Still, it's not so much that Bogosian has chilled, although he has, but that the world has gotten hotter under the collar. The New York that's portrayed here--a diseased city that his characters either want to flee or nuke--is the same fearful, brutalized Gotham from which Staten Island just this Tuesday voted to secede.
With Ross Perot on the march and Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern on the air, the once-marginal fury of Bogosian's motley crew has gone mainstream. This underside of the American psyche now struts unashamed down Flatbush Avenue and lights up the callboards of talk radio.
Bogosian's is still virtuoso portraiture well worth a trip to the Taper, but it no longer shocks. We've grown accustomed to the rage. Yet numbness is part of Bogosian's point. As the dog of the opening segment says, "Life's a bitch, and then they put you to sleep."
\o7 * "Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 14. $28-$35. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
\f7 Written and performed by Eric Bogosian. A Center Theatre Group production. Directed by Jo Bonney. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Stage Manager Richard W. Force.