Rootless youth trying to figure it all out, angry young men and women, bright, soulful and lost--it may sound very Rebel Without a Cause, but Eric Bogosian's subUrbia at the Theatre on Broadway is wholly contemporary. From the marvelous graffiti art decorating the set to the Rollerblades on Buff's energetic feet, from the tentative feminism to the alcohol-saturated nights, everything feels real and true to our times.
Bogosian's play shares some common ground with British playwright Edward Bond's Saved, which recently closed at the Lida Project. But Bond's vision is so bleak that no light penetrates the darkness of his young characters' mindless violence and predatory self-will. Bogosian's take on youth and violence, while every bit as real, allows the faintest flicker of compassion to penetrate the chaos.
As the story opens, three hard-drinking friends gather behind the local 7-Eleven and exchange caustic views about life and people. It's soon made clear that Tim is a racist, ethnocentric pig, while Jeff is a somewhat ineffectual budding intellectual who doesn't know what to do with all his recently acquired social consciousness. Hedonist Buff (played with awe-inspiring bounce by Brett Aune) skates through the story, vigorously fantasizing about women, pizza, beer and TV. He hasn't a coherent thought in his head, but he still manages to feel superior to the alcoholic Tim.
When we meet the women, Sooze is giving her first performance-art piece for the guys--a raunchy, skillful parody of a feminist diatribe against male sexuality--which her boyfriend, Jeff, takes personally. Sooze's brittle friend Bee-Bee finds herself attracted to the heedless, infantile Buff. She tells him about her work as a nurse's aid--from emptying bedpans to serving dinner and making beds--and we know that in the hospital, at least, she has some sense of purpose. But when Buff invites her out to the van for casual sex, the love-starved Bee-Bee readily agrees.
Meanwhile, the one high school chum who made it out into the wide world returns to his old stamping grounds as full of himself as an egg: Pony (played with a finely tuned self-absorption by Dylan Grewen) has become a rock star, complete with stretch limo and sexy publicist. The tension mounts when it becomes clear that Pony really wants Sooze and jealous Jeff just wants to hold her back. But there's plenty of animosity to go around, and the kids nip at each other like stray dogs.
Nicholas Sugar and Steven Tangedal's fabulous direction keeps this ensemble in perfect balance. The casting itself is a coup--every performance is delicately genuine, powerfully expressive and fully realized. Ted Bettridge plays Tim with a smoldering, violent edge that barely disguises the humiliated ape desperate for self-respect; as the Pakistani 7-Eleven owner intimidated by Tim, Kip Yates is smart and touching. Scott Blackburn's Jeff is all self-deceived boyish need, a young man who might actually have principles if only he had the will to discover them.
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And the three women shine. Shelly Bordas as Bee-Bee is a child abandoned to the wolves. In her fragile characterization, the message of the play finds its voice. Heather Van Vleet gives another stunning performance as the emerging artist, Sooze. Her performance piece is so brutal and so refined in its absurdity, punctuated as it is with Van Vleet's bright smile, it makes you laugh and gag at once. Genevieve Nedder makes Pony's publicist, Erica, languid, sexual and snide in all the right places.
The ensemble has a great set to work on--a set that actually advances the story, evoking the tumult and degeneracy of the world these kids inhabit. Bogosian grasps the ache of youth so perfectly that all the blather about art and life, by now so familiar and so touching in its naivete, points clearly to a raging desire for meaning. The tensions between genuine concern for others and aberrant self-concern are almost unbearably authentic. Cast adrift in a sea of booze, TV, indifferent parents and sad sex, these young adults steam and roil in their own juices; violence is the natural and expected end.
But Bogosian manages to defeat our expectations with a surprising turn of events that, in retrospect, seems natural enough and, though ghastly, actually points to authentic insight: Most of these kids do have a chance to escape their distress, if only they could recognize it.
subUrbia,through April 20, at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 860-9360.