It is not surprising that Eric Bogosian chose "subUrbia" as the title of his scathing play about a group of disaffected young people who hang out in front of a 7-Eleven, drinking the night away and railing against the phoniness of life and culture.
Although the drama, which opens tonight at the Studio Theatre in Washington, is set in the mythical town of Burnfield -- the "puke and pizza capital of the world," according to one character -- it could be unfolding anyplace in America where youths congregate to air their discontents, eat junk food and wait for something, anything, to happen.
It's the spelling of the title that's revelatory -- all lowercase letters with the exception of the capital U. That emphasizes the fact, explains Bogosian, that his twentysomething characters are not the sophisticates they think they are. Their opinions are hand-me-downs from the media. They talk in cliches.
"If urbanity means sophistication, they are sub-urbane," says the 43-year-old performance artist and writer, who admits that the play is modeled after his own experiences growing up in the 1970s in the cheerless town of Woburn, Mass. "They all have these strong ideas, but they're parochial ideas. They don't really know anything." He will even tell you that Jeff, the play's would-be intellectual who's close to dropping out of community college, is a fairly accurate portrait of himself at that age.
"My story's classic," he says. "I couldn't imagine anyone smarter than me when I came out of Woburn. Then on the first day of college, the teacher asks you to write a paper, and you don't know what a paper is! And then you hand-write it, and you're told no handwritten papers will be accepted. I had the breath knocked out of me for a while."
But he also thinks "subUrbia" chronicles another kind of collision, as American as the Slurpees at the 7-Eleven. "This is a materialistic society," he says. "The goals are money and success. That's how we understand if we are doing well or not doing well. And those values come into collision with the severe idealism you have when you're 21 and want the world to be a certain way. That collision has been going on repeatedly since World War II. I don't think it's any different now than when I was 21."
Rewritten since its debut at Lincoln Center in 1994 and tempered by the humane eye of director Jo Bonney, Bogosian's wife and collaborator, the Studio's "subUrbia" is still shot through with testosterone. Bogosian claims that Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (another play about provincials waiting for a future that never comes) was his inspiration. But he was also influenced by David Rabe's "Hurlyburly," surely one of the theater's most brutal accounts of men who abuse women and the women who suffer them. "SubUrbia" is definitely not for the queasy or the Pollyanna-ish.
"We're constantly facing angry, bigoted, unhappy people in life," says Bonney, a peripatetic Australian who met Bogosian while passing through New York, married him six weeks later and now directs most of his one-man shows. "It's worth inquiring into why they are like that. Eric's always playing devil's advocate. He puts these characters out there so we can take stock of them. He doesn't judge them, hoping that we will judge them."
In the one-person shows that made his name ("Drinking in America," "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," "Pounding Nails Into the Floor With My Forehead"), Bogosian has indeed painted a picture of America the Scummy. Dressed all in black, green eyes blazing, his hair a snarl of angry curls, he mesmerizes audiences with his X-rated portrayals of society's lowlifes and paranoids. He's the Lily Tomlin of the gutter, Robin Williams on the C Train at 2 in the morning.
"I try to look at human behavior in a context. This is the behavior. This is the context," he notes. "People are always asking me, What's the answer?' I'm not saying there is an answer. I'm just saying, This is the condition.' If we lived next to a volcano that erupted every four years, we'd make plays about a volcano."
By the mid-1980s, Bogosian had become a darling of New York's downtown performance art set, and he still tends to think of himself as an underground phenomenon living on bread, wine and $6,000 a year. He relies on "Eric's Home Page" on the World Wide Web to reach "my far-flung fans" and share his current "meditations" on art and hypocrisy. While he has a new one-man show, "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee," in the works, he performs it only in offbeat venues, where he can keep the ticket price under $20. "I have this new theory about the theater," he notes. "The ticket price reflects the average age of the audience. On Broadway, you'll notice we're up to $65 and $70."
Yet all the signs suggest he's no longer the fringe personality he once was. He, his wife and two young sons live in a spacious loft in TriBeCa, and he recently rented a suite of offices for Ararat Productions, his own production company (named after the mountain where Noah's Ark landed). He turns up regularly in movies. He was Jennifer Jason Leigh's boss in "Dolores Claiborne" and plays an agent in the forthcoming "Substance of Fire." ("I loved the character. He's everything an agent is," exults Bogosian. "Like he walks into a room and you figure you're going to catch a flu from him.") His widest exposure so far, however, has come from playing the villain, a mad computer nerd, opposite Steven Seagal in "Under Siege 2."
Is that any place for a self-respecting off-off-Broadway performance artist and writer to be seen?
"I know. I even make fun of Steven Seagal in Pounding Nails,' " Bogosian admits sheepishly. "But I wanted to see what it would be like to be on the set of a $60 million movie, and they paid me a lot of money. I went out to Colorado and stayed in a lavish hotel room and then couldn't sleep because I said to myself, You've done it. You've sold out. They've found your price.' "
As if seeking absolution, he hastily adds, "I never had any scenes with Steven until the end, when he caught me and killed me. Three times."
As a result of "subUrbia," Bogosian was hired to write the pilot for "High Incident," an ABC cop show set in the suburbs. "It went to series, so my name is on it," he says. "It's not a super hit, but it's not canceled yet. I like parts of the show. Parts I can leave. I shouldn't say that. Steven Spielberg is the producer."
And in Austin, director Richard Linklater ("Slacker," "Dazed and Confused") is winding up shooting on the movie version of "subUrbia." It has a low budget ($4 million) and no stars bigger than Parker Posey, which is to say not very big at all. Bogosian adapted the screenplay, tightening and clarifying passages in the process. Some of those improvements have been incorporated into the Studio production.
"Eric is a real up-and-coming playwright and he's extremely serious about it," states Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. "I always thought subUrbia' was a very well-made, old-fashioned play. The thing is, Eric's performing persona -- that larger-than-life guy, vaguely menacing, hilariously funny, with a snakelike glitter -- has very little to do with who he really is inside."
"I've been able to churn out a lot of work this past year," Bogosian says. "I don't know whether that is good or bad. My dramaturgy is pretty raw. I'm really shooting from the hip. I write a lot, then cut. The actual making of the shows helps me figure out what's really going on. When I hear a character's voice, I understand what he's about. Working with Jo is amazing, because she has this ability to see patterns, connections, themes. I don't think that way.
"We've been married 16 years, and in those 16 years I've gotten a lot of attention. Because I'm idiosyncratic, it creates this whole myth about me. Like I'm some special character. But it's really she and I working together over all this time. Before she came into the picture, I'd do some anarchic piece every six weeks or so, and the rest of the time I did nothing. I had no work habits. Having a good workday was answering the phone."
To hear them tell it, they are the polar opposites that attract.
"Our personalities are totally different," Bogosian points out. "She's discreet, patient, an awfully nice person. I'm completely indiscreet and a big-mouth. She's the antidote to my dark side, I guess. On the other hand, I've brought her out."
Bonney, the daughter of a Qantas pilot, puts it this way: "My family is sort of WASPy. His family is Armenian and everyone talks at the same time. We have a whole different manner of dealing with emotions. I'm in denial half the time, and he's trying to put it out on his sleeve half the time. That's why it's so interesting for us to work together. We counter one another's stance."
What they share is a taste for a strong, hard-edged art that gets in an audience's face. "The stuff I like is energetic, awkward and has a sense of humor about it," Bogosian explains. "You find it more in music than in theater. But there have been some theater things I liked. The True West' production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise still stands in my mind. I don't know. Maybe I'm stuck in the mentality of a 20-year-old for the rest of my life."
He fidgets in his chair and runs his fingers through his knotted hair. "My wife has such insight into this thing," he continues. "She says, Why would anybody want to call themselves cool'? What does cool' mean? It means you're completely distanced from life and don't contribute anything. You're selfish."
A diatribe is in the offing. "Everything's supposed to be entertainment these days," he growls. "Well, I want to enter another person's mind-set. I want something to be rearranged inside me because of the experience. But I don't understand the point of half the movies I go see. I don't even know what Forrest Gump' is about. I mean, I understand the episodes, but when you draw a line and add it all up, it doesn't mean anything. Life is like a box of chocolates'? What's that? That's meaningless!"
He catches himself, stops and apologizes for the rampage. Talk comes easily to him, and once he's on a roll, one opinion just feeds right into another. "I think kind of scattered," he allows, "and then I get some coffee into me and I float all over the place."
There is a manic quality to him. There would have to be or Bogosian wouldn't be Bogosian. But he's not all coiled energy and snapping jaws either. There's also something gentle and boyish in the man -- the very things that make "subUrbia" more than just a raw, scatological expose of kids disappearing down the drain. You sense it in the smile, in the undisguised pride he takes in his children's stick-figure drawings tacked up on the wall, in the goofy, self-mocking faces he sometimes makes.
But it's the photographer who actually gets him to articulate it. She's been snapping pictures steadily for 30 minutes. Down to her last few frames, she asks him to show her the real Eric Bogosian.
"Well, my real self is . . . I guess the word would be soft," he says. "Like some kind of snail outside its shell. Very vulnerable. Oh, I wouldn't want to be like that in a public place. You interact with a lot of people out there. There's a lot of hard stuff going on out there. So you can't be some sweet softy guy all the time. But . . ."
"People," Bonney has observed, "are always confusing Eric with his characters." CAPTION: Eric Bogosian, above, in a scene from his one-man play "Drinking in America"; his wife, Jo Bonney, right, on the set of "subUrbia," which she's directing; and Tina Frantz and Scott Harrison, below, in a scene from the play. CAPTION: Eric Bogosian.