Upstart’s Strong Production of subUrbia Can’t Shake Play’s Shortcomings

Eponymous Upstarts are attracted like moths to Eric Bogosian’s fiery subUrbia, completing their two-show Eric Bogosian season at The Green Zone. A play from the eve of the Internet about the Generation who responds with “Why?” but are labeled “X,” Upstart’s detailed production and energetic performances will make it worth your while no matter if you think the play is a time capsule or a cautionary classic.

Suburbia is about twenty-somethings doing penance at the aesthetically bereft cathedral of their culture: the 7-11. Beacon of convenience over community, the store’s backside serves as their concrete womb of woe where this crop of co-dependents must weigh the reassuring safety of sameness versus the frightening potential of future failure. Left to their own devices these heroes of zero back each other into corners out of boredom, ignorance, and fear. Providing perfect hate magnets for the middle-class kids are the put upon Pakistani pair who own the store and who are not white, not lazy, and not American. On this particular night, protagonist Jeff (Joey Folsom) informs drunk-friend Tim (Andrews W. Cope) and stoner-friend Buff (Ryan Martin) that former-friend-now-rockstar Pony (Justin Locklear) will stop by the parking lot. Adding jealousy to Tim’s envy of Pony is the suspicion that his girlfriend Sooze (Natalie Young) may hold a lighter for the rocker, as it were.  Adding fuel to the fun are Sooze’s depressed druggie-friend Bee-Bee (Cassie Bann) and Pony’s sexy thrill-seeking producer Erica (Samantha Rodriguez).

If it all seems a bit much, it’s because Eric Bogosian’s forte is not plot, but character—a necessary trait for someone who made his name writing and performing his own one-man shows. If you were going to write your own lines wouldn’t you make them as dynamic as possible? That’s why these modern day Dead End kids are all as articulate and energized as they are inexplicably angry. As a solo performer, Bogosian could mask this matching in the trappings of characterization—accents forgive a multitude of sins. The first third of the play has each character posing philosophical counterpoints instead of just posing. A more realistic dialogue would have them comparing cigarette butts for two hours.  But that wouldn’t do for a solo performance and really wouldn’t make for an entertaining play.  Instead, you can sit back and enjoy Bogosian’s juiced up and injected, privileged, yet disaffected, character creations. Each is worthy of a play and that’s why companies jump at producing his work despite that it’s a little dated and a plot contrived.

What makes the difference in Upstart Production’s case is their commitment. Take the set co-designed by Zachary Broadhurst and Cindy Ernst. The terrifically realized brick back lot perfectly reinforces the soul sucking anonymity of the ubiquitous store stamp anti-architecture. No wonder these characters have nothing greater to identify with than their next purchase. Success is no more than hedonistic abandon in Buff’s imagining or unrestrained dominance as Tim demonstrates. When Andrews W. Cope and Ryan Martin exemplify their character’s extremes on this set, the play begins to rise above its limits. Something about these misfits just belongs in this space of no place. It is when Justin Locklear’s Pony returns Virgil-like and can’t fit in, though, that you really appreciate the purgatory parking lot. He has learned a virtue none of the rest can appreciate let alone can muster: humility. Ironically, the rock star has realized that it is not all about him.

This play’s thesis is that American youth are throwing all their opportunities away. Central to this is Junior-college Jeff played authentically by Joey Folsom. On the surface, his dilemma concerns his performance artist wanna-be girlfriend Sooze who wants to escape the small town of Burnfield. Is he whipped if he goes to New York with her or should he man-up and stay put? But Folsom’s Jeff is wrestling with bigger things. One of the most successful scenes takes place between him and Pony as they try to renegotiate their friendship in the light of Pony’s success. It is the spaces between the dynamic text Bogosian has served up that the actors do their best work. The discomfort of trying to figure out who you are speaks louder than the author’s typical vitriolic bombast. In the end, Jeff’s discovery may come too late. But it is just in time for us. That’s what saves the show from just being a time capsule. In the end, it is not just a question for Jeff to figure out. It’s for us as well.

Photo: Natlie Young and Joey Folsom. Courtesy Marc Rouse for Upstart Productions

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