Theater archives

Critical Moments



To: BP, Theater Editor

From: MF, Chief Theater Critic

Sooner or later, I’m going to have to retire, when New York and its theater become too horrible for even a steel-stomached, brain-numbed scribbler like me to endure. And I know from our conversations that you, like me, have deep anxiety about finding a suitable successor. We agree that it must be someone of high intelligence, a wide range of imaginative sympathies, an extensive knowledge of real life, an intense dramatic instinct, great mental alertness, a quick and uninhibited comic sense, a passionate vision of what both life and theater can be—plus, of course, the highest aesthetic integrity and an incisive literary style. Well, our worries are over. I’ve just spent 95 dazzling minutes in the company of the best young critic in America. He’s a heterosexual white male, which may count against him with the Downtown crowd, but don’t worry, he’s as unconforming and resolute a rebel as you’ll find, rejecting dogmas in all directions.

The main point is that this guy is for real. He’s alive to everything going on around him, his mind ranges in every direction, and he spares nobody—least of all himself. That, of course, is the ultimate sign of a critical spirit: Critics who trust their own dogmas or believe in their own importance turn hollower and more pompous every day; mistrusting even your own capacities is the guaranteed way to stay alert. Eric Bogosian—that’s the guy’s name—has always done this. I’ve been watching his studies of people grow and blossom for years. He started out fascinated by underclass types, as far as possible from his own domesticated self; then he began to vary them with middle-class tame cats and then with top-of-the-world shysters. Now, his abilities are so honed that he no longer needs to make ceremonious preludes and pauses going from one character to the next: Like a world-class surgeon, he just comes in prepped and starts slicing away.

His newly enriched style is daring, even breathtaking, because its transitions are made seamlessly, without a pause, and because the human types he cuts down include himself. There’s one moment—almost the smallest in his routine—that I simply can’t get over: He goes from musing about the lives of superstars to imagining himself as one to being the obsequious chauffeurs and waiters who would flock around him if he were one. It lasts less than a minute, then he’s himself again before you realize anything’s changed. This moment’s been glowing in my mind since I watched him hurtle through his multi-character theatrathlon (well, what would you call it?); the only comparisons I can find for it are back in the rarefied past: Cesare Siepi singing “Finch’ han dal vino,” or James Cagney’s nonstop pointillist frenzies in One, Two, Three. What these artists had in common with Bogosian was fierce passion, an incredibly light touch, and breakneck speed. They were so at one with the world of the event that they could dive in headlong without losing a single nuance.

This premise presupposes a complex, quicksilver vision of human personality, which is something that’s always struck me in Bogosian. Most solo performers fall on either one side of the line or the other: They pretend to be a succession of other people, whom they find within themselves, or they explore the facets of their own persona as they’ve created it for stage purposes. Bogosian’s a both/and man: He travels in other people without letting you—or himself—forget that they’re all really him. This empowers him politically to an enormous extent, which I think is only just becoming visible in his work. With him, it’s never a case of “I think this” or “I’ve made a picture of a person who thinks that.” He is his own Rainbow Coalition, and without scanting the truly unpleasant colors at the slimier edge of the spectrum, where the rainbow ends in the materialistic garbage dump we’ve made of our civilization. Bogosian is there, watching out for the downtrodden, ridiculing the arrogant rich, defending battered wives and neo-hippie hitchhikers—and never losing sight of his own capacity for being classed among the batterers and bullies. Or, even worse, for being that guy who makes pieces about them, without being of them, who can talk any talk but not really walk the walk that goes with it.

Facing the fact that he, like everyone else, lives in the market economy, he gives us not only his show, his moral critique of it, and a context for it—he gives us its market niche, too, and the alternatives that might make the niche wider, more profitable, more prestigious. He’s so utterly shameless about his prospects that he’ll even willingly imagine himself as the sole survivor of a top-news-story plane crash—sole, of course, except for the gorgeous blonde stewardess he’s rescued from the burning wreckage and subsequently married. (Jo Bonney, the present Mrs. Bogosian, has directed the show.) Of course, he also imagines himself as the self-aggrandizing Hollywood dimwit who wants to film the story of his survival, who manages in roughly three minutes to make the proud survivor feel like both Sir Lancelot and a money-grubbing putz. Shamelessness is the source of unbounded truth. “For the poet, he nothing affirms,” Sir Phillip Sidney wrote, “and therefore never lieth.” Bogosian affirms everything, which is the theater artist’s way of bringing off the same feat. And there’s no lie in it; everything he does or says contains part of the disturbing truth, about his life and about ours. Is there a way out of it, into some higher truth? You’ll have to read the evidence he offers and decide that for yourself. But his 95 minutes is as fast and exciting a read as the theater currently offers. In our time, the stage has almost never been what classical thinkers saw it as, a medium for criticizing life. How perfect that a solo performer should rediscover its roots, by choosing his own life as the object of his criticism. His review of himself makes all the others superfluous—mine probably included.

At this late date, my review of Rebecca Prichard’s Yard Gal is probably superfluous, too, given the rambling littleness of the script. I respect the impulse behind it, which was presumably to tell us something about the lives of teenage girls in the East London slum of Hackney, but—as Bogosian would be quick to point out—that impulse often has a tacky, sensationalist edge, titillating comfy middle-class theatergoers with the luridness of violence in streets and clubs. Probably everything in Prichard’s account is true, but there’s no driving force or vision behind it, and no dramatic shape to justify it, either: It’s a sort of solo performance for two, with a pair of very gifted young actresses, under Gemma Bodinetz’s direction, sharing between them the data and dialogue of half a dozen gang girls. The performers, Amelia Lowdell and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, can certainly talk the talk and walk the walk; Duncan- Brewster is a particularly commanding figure. I expect we’ll see both women in an actual play sometime, which would be a good idea. But if current trends in playwriting continue, I don’t expect to stay around much longer, so plan on getting Bogosian to review it.