In "Griller," the new Eric Bogosian play at Center Stage, 50-year-old Gussie (affably befuddled David Garrison) realizes he's no longer 25. A onetime student radical, he now lives in a 14,000-square-foot house in the suburbs, and as the play opens is cooking steaks on his birthday present from his wife: a $5,000 grill. He's become the evil person he accused his parents' generation of being, but y'know, he doesn't feel evil. He just feels like a regular guy.
So yet another baby boomer is letting himself off the moral hook of his youthful ideals. It's not a very compelling process. Maybe Bogosian sensed this, because he provides a parallel plot by having a friend of Gussie's youth who has become a self-absorbed and successful movie producer show up so Gussie can question his life.
Nick (played to the shallow hilt, if such a thing is possible, by Henry Woronicz), in an Armani-style white suit, a T-shirt and sandals, arrives with a drop-dead-gorgeous blonde named Ross in tow (played by drop-dead-gorgeous and comically irritable Vera Cox). When Ross stomps off in a snit, the always amenable Nick flirts with all Gussie's women: his wife, Michelle (Caitlin Clarke), his sullen daughter, Dylan (Chelsea Altman), his homely sister, Gloria (Cheryl Giannini), even his elderly mother, Gramma Betty (Scotty Bloch).
Though Bogosian treats them as one, the stories--the invasion of one male's turf by another; Gussie's worrying about his lost ideals--are not the same. Nick's stoned hedonism doesn't offer Gussie a moral alternative--it's just another style of selling out. (If anything, the genially appalling Nick should make Gussie feel better about his own choices.) When Gussie dismisses his youthful live-fast, die-young attitude by sardonically labeling his present stance "live slow, die old," the best Nick can come up with is "50 years from now we'll all be bones in a box."
What Gussie might envy in Nick is Nick's easygoing, conscienceless way with women, particularly when he sees it at work in his own family. But, possibly to avoid the obvious plot line, Bogosian makes nothing of this. Gussie isn't challenged on any fundamental level. Bogosian seems determined to wrench the play away from its setup--which looks as if it will lead straight to melodrama--into a more equivocal, Chekhovian world, where the horrible thing that happens is that nothing much happens. It's a noble attempt, but he doesn't actually replace the missing melodrama with anything. Gussie doesn't get territorial or violent, but he doesn't do anything else either. He appears only mildly concerned about Nick's come-on to Dylan, and he isn't even aware of his old friend's effect on Michelle and Gloria. He's adrift in a play that's supposed to be about him.
Director David Warren has gathered an excellent cast, but they don't have much to play. "Griller" just eddies around, throwing off droplets of clever dialogue but not going anywhere. At the end, Gramma Betty has a monologue in which she says that her immigrant parents missed the old country, but she's glad she's not there. Presumably, this is meant to symbolically sum up Gussie's realization that the things of youth belong to youth, and once they're gone, they're gone. Ideals, schmideals--bring out the steaks!
Griller, by Eric Bogosian. Directed by David Warren. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lights, Donald Holder; music, sound design, John Gromada. With Drew Ansbacher, Christopher Field and Josh Radnor. At Center Stage, Baltimore, through Dec. 19. Call 410-332-0033.
CAPTION: Chelsea Altman, left, and Caitlin Clarke in Eric Bogosian's "Griller."