Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Eric Bogosian’s Latest Solo Work

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

by Jo Bonney

(TCG Books, 450 pages, $18.95)

George Jean
Nathan once said that critics shouldn’t bother denying their prejudices.
They should just be up-front about them, explain the experiences that led to
them and let readers decide whether they are justly held. In this spirit, I
confess my longstanding prejudice against solo performance, which, far from
mellowing, has rather been stiffened by years of regular theatergoing. Virtuosic
exceptions such as Eric Bogosian, Danny Hoch and John Leguizamo seem to me just
that, their rarity proof of the rule of naive self-indulgence and wannabe monumental
egotism. In this print-your-own-ticket, post-your-own-website age, too many
competent, twentysomething actors discouraged by a year or two of industry auditions
get the brilliant idea to jump-start their me-machines with sitcom-shallow autobiographical
solo pieces. The result is a glut of banality and fatuousness that cheapens
both the theater and the worthy impersonation skills of the performers.

Unlike some other solo-text
anthologies that have appeared under the banner of identity politics since this
genre exploded a decade or so ago, Extreme Exposure isn’t defined
by gender, sexuality, ethnicity or theme. It’s a collection of scripts
by 42 actor-authors from the beginning to the end of the past century–male
and female, gay and straight, highbrow and low, high-tech and low-–each
accompanied by a short introduction by a writer familiar with the artist’s
work. The range of information and the quality of research are excellent, with
many old texts transcribed from obscure recordings or culled from rare, out-of-print
books, and all the texts shrewdly selected to recall the atmosphere and flavor
of the often improvisational live performances.

The book’s broadly
inclusive scope strengthens rather than weakens the splintered agendas of the
various artists by placing them in a capacious context no one could argue was
parochial. (Indeed, some really have no agenda per se; their focus is on the
eternal dramatic question, "How does one live?") Not all were born
in the United States, but their careers all centered here, and among the book’s
most interesting and appealing aspects is its quintessential Americanness: it’s
a big, unruly admixture of hugely diverse storytelling sensibilities, all rooted
in the same mildly contradictory double need for complete independence and public

In the age of the Internet–which
has shaded American "independence" off into videophilic "isolation"
to create a more perfect public-confession box–this double need takes on
a special poignancy. Although most of Bonney’s artists, even the hipper,
younger ones, tellingly avoid the subject of the cyberworld, the masturbatory,
voyeuristic climate of video culture hangs over their every word, and the social
circumstance of the theater gives even the most flagrantly self-aggrandizing
among them a certain self-sacrificial dignity. Risky honesty is everywhere in
this book, and the best of the performers display a quasi-Beckettian relish
for the reductio ad absurdum of theatrical spectacle, treating existence onstage,
the dilemma of the unaccommodated actor actually caught in a vise and not merely
describing it, as the unavoidable Topic behind every topic.

There’s no way any
review could do descriptive justice to a selection that runs from Beatrice Herford
(who performed comic monologue-portraits from 1896 to 1943) and Lord Buckley
(a cabaret performer whose act featured a sort of spoken jazz from the 1920s
to 1960) through Ruth Draper, Lenny Bruce, Ethyl Eichelberger, Lily Tomlin,
Tim Miller, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Dael Orlandersmith. Some
of the older figures were nothing but historical names to me before this book
gave them lucid voice and contour. Others, such as Jackie "Moms" Mabley
(who refined her black "mammy"-cum-trickster character over half a
century) and Brother Theodore (the macabre and apocalyptic Holocaust-survivor-turned-comic-philosopher)
I saw on tv as a child in the 1960s and 70s but knew little about them until
reading Extreme Exposure.

There are numerous younger
artists in the book whose work I haven’t seen (particularly those based
on the West Coast, such as Anne Galjour, Marga Gomez and Josh Kornbluth). Also,
inevitably, several local figures whom I have seen but don’t admire nearly
as much as Bonney does, even after reading their words and those of their advocates.
The great pleasure and value of this book, however, is to make such differences
seem like minor issues in light of the precious heritage traced in the bulk
of the material.


Wake Up
and Smell the Coffee
Eric Bogosian
Eric Bogosian,
whose solo work Bonney has directed since 1981 (they’re a couple), is a
fine example of what I said before about the performer caught in a vise. Of
course, he’s no Poor Theater martyr or body-mutilating Actionist, but I’ve
been following his stage shows since Drinking in America (1986), and
in every case what has lodged deepest in my memory are his attitude, energy
and voice, not the content of his vignettes, or the personalities of the people
he portrays. Bogosian is an outraged soul, indignant at the insanity of this
world but too smart to characterize his indignation as righteous or to try to
hide what I take to be his natural sarcasm and bitterness. It would be clear
that his characters, all male, are rooted in himself even if he and his critics
hadn’t said so explicitly years ago, and watching him has always been,
for me, a bit like eavesdropping on a man screaming at his mother in the mirror.
It’s as if he starts out, with exquisite control, looking for someone to
blame for who he is (in the guise of his characters, that is), then loses respect
for that search and ultimately settles for a more complex picture that he’s
not sure anyone will comprehend. Then that uncertainty, in turn, becomes the
source of further indignation that is useful grist for his next vignette or

Wake Up and Smell the
, his sixth evening-length solo, deals with many of the same worldly
insanities, and takes largely the same approach as his previous pieces. After
a brief, jarring prelude in which he screams like a street-brawling moron about
being "on top" and "number one" (performed to raunchy, pounding
music and annoying strobe lights), he puts on a black jacket over his black
jeans and neat, skinny tie and speaks in his "normal," insinuatingly
aggressive voice about what will be in the show, absurdly exaggerating its "journey"
and how it will improve our lives. Before that gag is even over, he deflates
it (as he has before in his intros) with various self-deprecatory comments that
he may or may not half-believe ("I can’t make you think; I can only
make you numb for a while"; your "conformist" lives are "punctuated
by only the most lame and insipid diversions, of which this is one"), before
launching into a series of acted portraits, beginning with a whiny, pop-psychoanalyzing
spectator who complains that "you’re very negative."

I can imagine that someone
seeing Bogosian for the first time in this show might enjoy him on the level
of social content. His compulsively cellphone-calling asshole-businessman on
line at the airport who thinks everyone else is an asshole; his Eastern guru
preaching that "alienation is simply lack of money; money brings deep and
abiding happiness"; an angry, alcoholic father blaming everybody but himself
for his ruination; his impression of the devil pleasantly explaining his way
of life as a consumer choice in a tv commercial: these are funny enough, in
their relative obviousness, primarily because the characters are so sharply
drawn. For anyone who’s seen Bogosian skewer these same hypocrisies more
efficiently before, however, the main pleasure in this show is rather in a single,
anomalously ambiguous portrait and in the many segments of direct interaction
with the audience.

The portrait is a long fantasy
scenario about an ordinary guy (pleasant enough, a little pushy, much like Bogosian),
who flirts with a flight attendant on the way to L.A., invites her to a concert,
rescues her from the wreckage after the plane goes down in the Rockies and then
becomes a minor celebrity due to his heroism. Bogosian happily waits to impose
a moral on this story until the end (the guy divorces his wife of 19 years to
marry the fantasy babe), leaving the mind free the rest of the time to make
less predictable connections. In the same relatively humble spirit (which seems
to acknowledge briefly that real recognition and understanding can be a bit
more drawn out than simply waking up and smelling the coffee), the direct addresses
to the audience–the show’s best material–are devoted to deflecting
any mistaken impression that he is, or thinks he is, a hero-savior or a courageous
rebel. Referring snidely to the audience as a bunch of baby birds with their
mouths open, he says near the end: "I got news for you, I’m all outta
worms today… We haven’t gone anywhere. I’m just a bullshit slinger
from a long line of bullshit slingers." False humility or not, that’s
the bullshit some of us came to see.

Jane Street Theater, 113
Jane St. (betw. Washington St. & West Side Hwy.), 239-6200, through July