The American Dream can be a bitter pill to swallow, and it's not for sale in this country's remoter convenience stores. As if to prove this, one such store - which in its fluorescent lighting, tacky window displays, and ubiquitous orange-and-green sign design all but screams 7-11 - is the centerpiece of subUrbia, Eric Bogosian's scathing-slippery indictment of everything outside of New York and Los Angeles, which Second Stage is now reviving.
Unfortunately, this spirited but soulless production, which has been directed by Jo Bonney, sheds no light on the eternal blight of malaise afflicting America's young adults that wasn't visible when Lincoln Center Theater premiered the play in 1994. Early-twentysomethings today still want the personal, professional, artistic, and sexual fulfillment they always have; those aspirations haven't changed. Just about everything else, however, has.
That progress, within both the U.S.A. and the still narrower confines of cutting-edge theatre, has not been kind to Bogosian's once-trenchant play. The proliferation of the Internet has made us a smaller, more informed nation; the popularity of frank TV shows "about nothing" like Seinfeld and Friends has all but inured us to that form as one of dramatic innovation; and theatre's own increasing liberalization, defined now by the unrestrainedly ribald gaiety of shows like Avenue Q, make the manufactured issues of Bogosian's seven post-adolescents even more of their time.
Yes, they and their troubles have been bestowed that most unthinkable of qualities: quaintness. And despite some obligatory updating, they do not wear it well.
Jeff Gallagher (Daniel Eric Gold) is an ennui-riddled college semi-dropout (he's still taking one useless course at the local community college) who feels powerless to change the negative course of the world, though young people have never had more opportunities to do so. Budding video artist Buff Macleod (Kieran Culkin), despite (or perhaps because of) his questionable talent, could be a reigning star of YouTube if he so chose. Tim Mitchum (Peter Scanavino), who signed up for Operation Iraqi Freedom but injured himself before entering combat, is the kind of deranged bigot who's populated pop entertainment since the Vietnam War was the height of topicality. The women in their lives are scarcely more advanced, with Jeff's girlfriend Sooze (Gaby Hoffman) a hypersexualized performance artist (how outré!) and Bee-Bee (Halley Feiffer) an aimless addict who might be visiting from a flower child photo album.
They're all locked in a time warp, where no number of references to Darfur and Haiti can compensate for the spectral threat of AIDS looming in the background, the rather illiberal attitudes these progressive kids display toward homosexuality, or how indie rock and its questionably generated heartthrobs are still the talk of the town. The town in which they're all rotting, Burnfield, has even produced one of its own: Neil Moynihan, nicknamed "Pony" (Michael Esper), who parlayed his high-school band into a big-time gig replete with the requisite limos, groupies, and assistants (specifically Bel-Air blonde Erica, played by a game but bland Jessica Capshaw) that represent for the friends Pony left behind the ultimate escape from the soul-stifling normality of the cookie-cutter life.
How correct that view is, and how they'll realize it or die trying, is the play's driving concern and all that remains even moderately timeless about it. Otherwise, the characters' words and actions resonate with an affected shallowness that points only to how much things have changed and not - as Bogosian and Bonney likely hoped - how much they've stayed the same. (The treatment of the Pakistani store owners, decently played by Manu Narayan and Diksha Basu, has an especially pre-9/11 feel.)
Only Culkin, with his shrugging likability and perfectly pitched retro-grunge attitude (augmented, better than anyone else, by Mimi O'Donnell's costumes), and Scanavino, who mines compelling blood-level societal confusion from Tim's overly familiar predicament, capture the essences of their characters in currently relevant ways. Gold's Jeff seems too old and knowing for either his rampant moralizing or his relationship with the wayward Sooze to ring true. Hoffman's unanchored portrayal, which like Feiffer's is about commenting on the role rather than inhabiting it, doesn't help.
They can hardly be blamed, as Bogosian and Bonney have done no better. Bonney's realistic staging on Richard Hoover's elaborately realistic set allows no fantasy to creep into this world, but the show requires at least some to compensate theatrically for the contradictions now preventing the play from firing on all emotional cylinders.
Even Pony's potentially powerful serenading of Sooze with one of his hits fails to register as anything but dramatic potential gone awry. "I know it's not easy," Esper sings in his sturdy pop baritone, "to open your eyes / see what's around you / listen to their lies." Sooze, determined to relocate to the freer New York despite Jeff's objections, can't help but have her eyes opened by her idol's words. But these lyrics, like so much else in the play, suggest that in rethinking subUrbia Bogosian and Bonney kept their own eyes too tightly shut.