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THEATER REVIEW

Bogosian Tackles Familiar Gen-X Themes in 'subUrbia'

July 17, 1996|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kids--they break your heart. Especially the dysfunctional twentysomethings in Eric Bogosian's disappointing new play "subUrbia," at the Actors' Gang in Hollywood.

What a motley crew is chewing the fat--or whatever lingo Gen-Xers use--behind the 7-Eleven in the aptly named town of Burnfield. Tim (Jeff Wiens) chopped off a fingertip to get discharged from the Air Force and now spends his nights in a haze of booze and racist rants. Sooze (Holly Gleason) is a self-righteous performance artist; her ethereal boyfriend Jeff (Alex Fox) is waging a lonely fight to be the moral conscience of the group. The resident head banger, Buff (Jason Peck), has a better idea: He seems happy wherever the music is loud and the marijuana plentiful.

This dubious clique could probably continue this way forever, but their lives change--sort of--after the homecoming of former mate Pony (Charles Hess), who has become a famous rock star in L.A.

Fans of Bogosian (e.g., the play and movie "Talk Radio" and the brilliant monologue "Sex Drugs Rock & Roll") will recognize some familiar themes here, including the perennial self-delusion and corruption of values brought on by advanced cultural decay. The coarse superficiality of pop culture has succeeded in making young people at once nihilistic and gullible. It's a self-canceling combination, which may help explain Gen-Xers' much-vaunted confusion.

But the playwright's gifts for satire and real-life speech seem to have failed him here. The kids of "subUrbia" do not talk in an especially memorable way--a glaring oversight, considering the rap-laced argot overheard at shopping malls. Even exchanges intended to be cannily inarticulate fall flat: "I'm alienated." "I'm [expletive] alienated too."

Worse, it's unclear what, if anything, Bogosian is trying to tell us. Is he suggesting that kids today are mixed-up, their identities insecure? Well, duh. A glance at MTV's "Real World" could have told us that.

After Pony's arrival, we keep waiting for some kind of "Iceman Cometh"-like epiphany to come crashing down like a thunderbolt. But it never arrives. Instead, we get a string of futile subplots involving peripheral characters: Norman (Jack Janda), the Central Asian immigrant who tries to shoo the kids away from his 7-Eleven franchise; Bee-Bee (Pam Cook), the nut case and sacrificial lamb; and Erica (Jennifer Seifert), Pony's princess-as-publicist.

Director Michael Uppendahl, on behalf of a new troupe called the Namaste Theatre Company, has managed to preserve a hip ambience, abetted by recorded music from Jane's Addiction and other bands. (The script is being developed, naturally, into a movie.) But the cast is a bit tentative and uneven, with perhaps the best turns coming from Gleason (whose droll performance-art sendup is a hoot) and Hess.

* "subUrbia," Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 18. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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