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June 20, 2005

Eric Bogosian Live on Stage (After a Fashion)

by Ron Hogan

Anticipating a crowd for Eric Bogosian's reading, the KGB organizers moved the show down to the first floor and the Kraine Theater, but a good-sized crowd was in the bar beforehand waiting for tickets to be handed out. Bogosian came out at 8 p.m. sharp, and though his goatee had me doing a mental doubletake, the familiar voice came out quickly enough. The KGB appearance was the last stop on the tour for his second novel, Wasted Beauty, a tour on which he'd been experimenting by reading from some of his earlier monologues as well. So the first piece was actually the "ceramic tile salesman" from Drinking in America--and he went into character so quickly that, in conjunction with the facial hair, I might almost have been convinced that I was watching Sam Elliott up on that stage. A lengthier extract from Wake Up and Smell the Coffee followed, taking the audience from a failed audition for a wisecracking best friend role in a big-budget comedy to grandiose fantasies of celebritydom to a corrosive critique of society's obsession with the midst of which, somebody's cell phone rang. Bogosian calmly paused, smirking, then broadly opened his own jacket, pulled his own phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and said, "Hello? Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Right. Uh-huh. OK. Great. Uh-huh," or words to that effect, hung up, and picked up the scene where he'd left off.

"I'm completely subverting the book reading portion of the evening here," he joked after this segment ended, "but they told me you people don't buy the book anyway." Then he gave us a scene of suburban voyeurism from Wasted Beauty, after which he opened the floor to questions, the first one of which was something like "do you remember that poem you read at such-and-such event?" "Yeah," he said, "I think I've got it here. You want me to read it?" And so he did. Subsequent questions reached back to comments he'd made in his opening remarks about why he'd given up solo performing. "Audience is what theater is," he explained, and for him much of the pleasure of performing came from being with a "tribe" whose "shared values" would enable him to speak about specific subjects and have the audience get what he was saying, rather than having to stick to superficial generalities. When the seats started filling up with people who didn't really understand where he was coming from, he continued, the fun went out of it. For that matter, he was pretty down on contemporary theater in general, especially the timidity of most companies to present truly challenging material. Books were so cheap to produce, he mused, that nobody was going to tell him they couldn't afford to potentially offend readers with what happened in the scene he'd read us (I'm being vague to preserve your sense of discovery). Add that to the fact that "something broke inside of me" on 9/11--he lives in downtown Manhattan--and he was simply ready to try another type of writing for a while. So far it seems to have paid off--prose fiction necessarily sets up a degree of remove, so there's slightly less immediacy than in the monologues, but it's also still very identifiably Bogosian's voice coming through.

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