By Eric Bogosian
Directed by Steven Maler
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts, through April 5.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Step through the double doors from the BCA lobby into the main BCA Theatre, and there it is: the Lower Depths of suburbia. Realistic. Astonishing. Susan Zeeman Rogers's set features a Kwik Mart that looks full size and plausibly permanent. How in the world did it get here, glass front, stocked shelves, yellow painted cinder block walls, trash can, illuminated sign and all? The building squats on what looks exactly like an asphalt parking lot, and behind it is a dumpster and a trash-filled tangle of woods and underbrush that extends to some distant vanishing point. Lighting designer John Malinowski has arranged for a glare-and-glow that seems to emanate from the store itself and from a streetlight or two just out of view, and the whole seems to give off the fluorescent hum of these lonely night places. How can this production have built a set that gives the illusion of reality and at the same time appears to be at least three times the size of the theatre that holds it? Why is its effect so magical? The thing is ugly, flat-out repulsive, yet it shares the charm of a Victorian dollhouse, or an elaborate toy train layout-- of mundane detail lovingly observed and painstakingly imitated.

The young actors in director Steve Maler's ensemble are perfectly at home on SpeakEasy's amazing set, and are pretty amazing themselves. They are playing kids in the late teens and early twenties, burn-outs left over from high school who are stuck here in suburban Burnfield, suffering from the perception that they have nothing much worth doing to do and nobody worth knowing to be. That is, right in the heart of America, where their parents thought they were building a haven from the corrupt and decaying cities, these kids are in hell. As one of them puts it, "Things are fucked up beyond belief and I know I don't have a fucking thing to say about it" -- which of course could serve as either a complaint about disempowerment or a confession of incapacity.

It's no wonder that these kids spend most of their "free" time trying to numb or distract themselves. The wonder is that having had such a terrible sentence passed on their lives, they are still able, from time to time, to be randomly kind to each other.

The kids have made this grungy corner outside the all-night convenience store their territory. They chain smoke, snarf junk food, drink, dance, litter, romp, shout, spar, and pair off to copulate inside a wrecked van in the ravine just out of sight down back. They know that they are scaring away customers from the convenience store, and plaguing the Pakistani brother and sister (Amir-Hooman Darvish, Shonali Banerjee) who run the place, but the kids aren't worried that they will get in trouble with the police -- not when it is a case of conflict between the town's own ne'er-do-well children and a couple of dark-skinned foreigners.

Most of the kids include racism in their indictment of the evils of the society that spawned them, and show some discomfort at playing the race card to control their turf, but not Tim (Michael McLaughlin). Tim is defiantly racist -- and defiantly sexist and violent and lazy and greedy and substance-abusing and whatever else hypocritical squares most reject and condemn yet secretly are. Tim's a little older than the others, returned to Burnfield after an abortive stint in the Air Force. Even when he displays a bitter wit Tim's not much fun, but his deep reservoir of rage at "the system" gives him superior status within the gang of self-defined outsiders. He is a loser like the others, but one who promises to go down with a bang instead of a whimper and take some of the enemy with him when he does.

Willy O'Donnell's Buff is fun. Buff enjoys himself, he enjoys roller blading and TeeVee and all the beer and babes and blow that come his way, and his child-like good humor and boundless energy make him entertaining if mindless company.

Kate Luhr's Bee-Bee is rather sweet. Bee-Bee's a rehabbed alcoholic who's done time in a metal hospital, an experience that was terrible in itself and even more terrible because before they locked her up in the loony bin Bee-Bee had thought her parents loved her. Now she works emptying bedpans and cheering up the dying elderly patients at a nursing home, and after work she hangs with the burn-outs, smoking a lot and not saying much.

Sooze (Valerie Stanford) is a clever wanna-be performance artist and painter who has almost made up her mind to leave Burnfield for art school in New York. Davidlee Wilson is Sooze's boyfriend Jeff. Jeff has some incipient intellectual inclinations, but claims to have nothing but contempt for the kind of phonies who go to college. Sooze's imminent departure to join the phonies represents something of a crisis. Even so, Jeff is proud to have a girlfriend who does art and possesses a bigger vocabulary than his, in spite of his best friend Tim's warnings against such a misalliance.

This is a special night for the gang, because one of their old high school classmates, a guitar player/songwriter called Pony who has made a record and may be on his way to stardom, is supposed to be coming back to the corner in his stretch limo to touch base with his roots or some such metaphor, and if he really does then anything might happen. Pony might whisk any one of them away to celebrity-land, which is so phony its real. Pony might patronize and humiliate them, or embarrass them by trying too hard not to patronize and humiliate them. Though why should they care, when none of them were impressed by him or his music when he played at the high school dances, or interested enough in him now to show up at one of his concerts?

Sooze performs her oppressed-sex-object feminist piece with a couple of battery lanterns on the bench, and is very impatient with Jeff when he takes her performed rage against men personally just because he happens to be the guy she is sleeping with. It's a formality, that's all, an audition monologue to demonstrate to the art school that she's mastered the New York vocabulary.

Pony (Rik Sansone) does show, with limo, and he brings with him Erika (Sims McCormick), an upper-middle princess with a yen for rough trade. The gang gather round Pony to hear him sing a bit, and then together they kick around some tentative profundities about art until Tim explodes in a macho display of resentiment so spectacular that Pony defers to him and Erika decides that he might prove sexually interesting.

By the time most of them pile into Pony's limo to go get Chinese take-out, the potent mixture of jealousy and rage and alcohol and dope would be scary enough, but a gun has also made an appearance. Something terrible is in the offing. Something terrible happens, though not quite the expected something.

So, who is the audience for this play? Is the joke on the kids, or on the audience? Who is "SubUrbia" for? Generation X, or boomers looking down on them? Is the play a farce, holding the repulsive characters and their foolish illusions up to ridicule, an extension of the cruel brilliance of Eric Bogosian's monologues in "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" and "Drinking in America"? Or is it a kind of Chekhovian tragicomedy, where the characters' illusions are the expressions of an era's inescapable malaise, the peculiar form the tragic-and-comic human condition falls into at that particular transitional time and place?

Director Maler opts for the latter, and has his actors play the characters as Stanislavsky had his actors play Chekhov, pathetically, from their own point of view. (Chekhov protested that he'd written farce.) The kids are sympathetic in their confusions, and they care enough for each other that when they hurt each other we in the audience don't laugh at them much because we are hurt, too. In this production, Bogosian's lines aren't funny. Bogosian's plot isn't a clever comic reverse riff on a cleverly crafted TeeVee melodrama, but a botched imitation of it, rife with sentimentality and sensationalism. By taking the time to take the angst of adolescents seriously, and what with all the pauses for acting and moments of truth, the thing lasts nearly three hours-- which is no laughing matter.

So why am I praising SpeakEasy's production, and why, in spite of the acute distress all that on-stage smoking caused this allergic reviewer, do I urge everyone to risk their lungs and see it, too? Because the moments ARE truth, detail lovingly observed and painstakingly imitated. Because Maler and his actors have pulled at a solid-gold thread in Bogosian's stuff, and unraveled his authorial safety net. Because the SpeakEasy ensemble is alive on stage, every inch at every moment. Because I've recently seen a bunch of theatre majors at a local college acting just like these kids, just like the burn-outs who hang at the T-stop in my neighborhood, abusing their minds and bodies in the same ways, with the same mixture of cynicism, naiveté, and hectic despair -- and I haven't the heart to laugh at them, either.