Madness and the Subway


Eric Bogosian’s brain moves so fast he rarely finishes a sentence. And his current project with fellow writer-performer Jonathan Ames makes him even more intense than usual. The downtown duo is working on a revival of Bogosian’s 1993 one-man show Notes From Underground, about a reclusive unnamed diarist slowly slipping into madness. Bogosian directs, while Ames takes center stage as the tortured protagonist, in a production that starts May 1 at P.S.122.

Bogosian rose to fame in the mid 1980s with his one-man show Talk Radio, which he eventually expanded into a multi-character play and film. Ames made his name in the 1990s writing confessional columns for The New York Press. Initially it seems odd for two artists best known for penning and performing their own words to collaborate, especially since Ames has never tackled anyone else’s text. And their personas seem antithetical: Bogosian is boisterous and explosive, Ames soft-spoken and self-deprecating.

Yet there are striking similarities between Notes From Underground and Ames’s work. When he performs, Ames reads his essays clothed in a suit and tie. The bedeviled diarist in Bogosian’s show reads from his journal also clothed in suit and tie. And the narrator’s recurring declaration “I will be good” juxtaposed against his outrageously self-destructive behavior sounds like something out of an Ames story.

“When we first decided to work together, I didn’t realize how many places Jonathan and I were truly congruent,” Bogosian says. “When I started reading his stuff, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is the same thing!’ ”

“Eric sent me the play, and I went, ‘Whoa,’ ” Ames remembers. “The very first diary entry is March 23, which is my birthday. It was kismet.”

“A mutual friend invited me to this reading Jonathan was in,” Bogosian explains. “He read some stuff, and I was just floored. I was like, Jonathan should do this guy in my play. There aren’t many people I can trust this piece to.”

“I was flattered when Eric asked me to do it,” Ames says. “All my work has been so much me, and this was a chance to try to act, to take someone else’s words and invest my spirit into them.”

Now their only obstacle is staying focused long enough to get the show on its feet. These guys like to banter as much as they like to work—maybe more so. “My life is not as interesting as my writing,” Bogosian insists. “Most of my stuff isn’t autobiographical like Jonathan’s. But this play is autobiographical in its mind-set. No one thinks I’m this nuts, but I am. Jonathan, I always wonder with your stuff, what do your parents think?”

“My first book, I Pass Like Night, freaked them out, and we had to go for a therapy session so I could tell them what was real and what wasn’t,” Ames explains. “The therapist told my dad, ‘Your son comes across very loving in this book.’ And my dad was like, ‘Yeah, but I can’t go to shul anymore!’ ”

Bogosian laughs. “Are you totally Jewish?”

“100 percent,” Ames replies.

“That’s right: ‘Ashke-Nazi,’ ” Bogosian jokes, quoting from Ames’s book What’s Not to Love? “I’m not Jewish,” Bogosian says, “but I’m a nice Jewish boy. I dated a hot Jewish girl in college. I had grown up around Catholics, so I didn’t know sex could be enjoyed by girls. Jonathan, what’s your proclivity? I can’t tell from your writing. You have these fantastic, sort of ethereal Midwestern types that come up out of the waves like a Botticelli painting.”

Ames ponders this analogy for a moment, then answers, “I’ve had some Midwesterners, some blonds, but I have no type. I’ve never been with a woman taller than me.”

“You’ve got to have the R. Crumb approach to things,” Bogosian advises. “You need to see the body as kind of a trampoline, as a vast geography to go exploring in, perhaps get lost in altogether.”

Is this how most rehearsals go?

“Yeah, we never get to the point,” Bogosian admits.

“Can I say something about the play?” Ames asks like a kindergartner talking out of turn. “I know it sounds cheesy to connect it to the world, but I’m glad to play this dark character who’s like, ‘What the hell is going on out there?’ ”

“I know,” Bogosian concurs. “We were rehearsing, and I was like, oh man, we’re back in this place in history again where soldiers are shooting kids in the head and refugees are out in the desert. That same shit was going on when I wrote the play.”

And it’s that perpetual horror and chaos that drive the diarist mad. As he sinks deeper and deeper into desolation, he conjures up fantasy lives in an attempt to save himself. But they lead to a complete mental meltdown.

“In that regard I relate to this guy,” Bogosian admits. “We’re always in the process of trying to fix our lives. It’s an obsession. When I think of my grandmother, I don’t think she ever for one minute wondered whether she was doing things right or not. She simply dealt with what was happening. She never thought, ‘Gee, I better go to a therapist. Have I met my full potential?’ Today we’re like, ‘You’re an individual!’ And then left to our own devices we go completely fucking mad. Sometimes the subway beckons. I see that train coming and go, wow, just one little move.”

“I used to have the subway suicide fantasy,” Ames chimes in cheerily. “I used to have the whole thing planned: I’ll act like I’m running for the train so my parents won’t think I’ve killed myself. I’ll learn the whole schedule and bust through the turnstile at the exact right moment. If I can time it just right it will seem like I fell.”

Bogosian claps his hands and laughs.

“I think we’ve discovered from this project that we’re actually the same person,” he exclaims, only half kidding.