Superficially, Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia (1994) and St. John Ervine’s John Ferguson (1915) couldn’t be further apart. What can the hardscrabble Irish farm life of eight decades earlier possibly have in common with life in the decaying American suburbs of that tiny historical moment just before the Internet revolution? But the two are playing just a few buildings apart on West 43rd Street, and they show some surprising similarities, a nice reminder that the realist tradition is a continuum. In both plays, the action happens in one place that is home to a small group of people, a home simultaneously comforting and alienating. (True, subUrbia takes place on the asphalt outside a 7-Eleven, but the characters gather there every night.) In each, some of the people find a way out—which they need, for the characters in both works are, on the whole, miserably unhappy, though both are, at times, funny and thought-provoking rather than simple studies in gloom.
Unhappiness is the common coin of realist drama, a flickering sense its characters have that there is no way out, that their life is a kind of death. Mary McCarthy, in an essay on the subject, once compared the domestic interiors where most realist plays take place to coffins with the lid raised for us to see inside. Not irrelevantly, the stories of both subUrbia and John Ferguson involve someone presumed dead who turns out to be alive, followed in both by a real death. In realism, the two conditions are similar enough to cause that kind of uncertainty. In the Irish play, actual death seems the only way out; New World playwrights tend to provide alternative escape routes. About half the characters in subUrbia get a half-happy outcome. William Dean Howells’s quip to Edith Wharton that what Americans always want is “a tragedy with a happy ending,” still applies.
There’s no happy ending for Jeff (Daniel Eric Gold), subUrbia‘s unheroic hero, but it’s hard to sympathize. The great realist writers—Ibsen, Chekhov, Schnitzler—organized their material toward a deeper intensity; without it, realism tends to give off an eerie, flat-painted neutrality. Jeff and his girlfriend, Sooze (Gaby Hoffmann), a would-be artist, are breaking up. She dreams of New York avant-garde stardom; he, an articulate but apathetic college dropout with a dead-end job, seems devoid of dreams. The 7-Eleven where they hang out nightly with their similarly trapped friends is their meager alternative to the creepily dysfunctional parody of ’50s sitcom suburban life carried on by their unseen parents. Jeff’s apathy is fueled by his buddy Tim (Peter Scanavino), a disillusioned vet whose military career was cut short by a minor noncombat injury, who now sits around boozing on his disablity pension, spreading negativity and bigotry. The latter finds a handy target in the 7-Eleven’s owners, a Pakistani brother and sister (Manu Narayan and Diksha Basu), recent arrivals for whom this downward-spiraling town is only a way station on the road to old-style American success.
Proof that the road still exists arrives in the person of Pony (Michael Esper), a local escapee who’s become a minor rock star, dropping by while on tour to see Sooze. Hard to tell if his interest in her is romantic, artistic, or just an attempt to help an old friend. Bogosian’s post-Pinter realism leaves such matters ambiguous. The successful are as clueless as the losers, though marginally happier or more dedicated to their work. And this is Warhol’s America: Anybody might get that 15 minutes simply by declaring himself an artist, like Jeff’s scatterbrained pal Buff (Kieran Culkin), or by outright criminality, as Tim almost does. But how people end up, like the central question of whether Sooze will dump Jeff and go off with Pony, barely seems to matter: Realism only records life; to convey the underlying patterns, authors have to invest it with some deeper awareness. We still play Ibsen, Chekhov and Schnitzler; the Curels and Sudermanns who mimicked their example are largely forgotten. What might save subUrbia from that oblivion is Bogosian’s gift, as in his solo works, for writing richly performable material. Second Stage’s revival of subUrbia, with a slightly tweaked text, is directed by Jo Bonney, Bogosian’s spouse, with an energetic clarity; the four principal men—Gold, Culkin, Esper, and Scanavino—etch particularly strong portraits.
St. John Ervine (1883–1971) was a realist worth rescuing from the discard pile. John Ferguson shows you, among other things, how Bogosian’s noncommittal, photographic style might have evolved from the most emotionally underscored form imaginable, melodrama. Crippled and pious, Ferguson‘s title character has to make his son, meant for the ministry, work their heavily mortgaged farm instead. When their nasty landlord, who has just called in the mortgage, gets murdered, the obvious suspect is the pipsqueaky local shopkeeper engaged to Ferguson’s daughter. But in realism the surface appearance doesn’t tell you everything. As new revelations change the situation, Ervine, a stringently secular Ulsterman, has bitter fun notating the shifts within the Ferguson family’s seemingly rigid Christian morality. Even these God-fearing folk, it turns out, can fixate on worldly success like subUrbia‘s wannabe artists: Their hopes are pinned to those mythic figures, the relatives who went to America. Here, too, there’s little happiness left for those who haven’t escaped. Martin Platt’s stark, lucid production could use a little of subUrbia‘s youthful electricity, but the performance is solid and the play’s quality comes through. The bleak ending opens a vista not only onto the morally blank spaces of later realism but onto the inner landscape of Beckettian despair.