In new solo show Eric Bogosian acts as hard as nails

January 22, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Has Eric Bogosian been domesticated? Become kinder and gentler?

L The idea seems as incongruous as a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Yet that's the claim made by this intense, even abrasive %J performer, who's best known for the take-no-prisoners approach his one-man shows.

"I've always been kind of mushy in my center," Bogosian says. "I've just been kind of hiding it."

Indeed, he's hidden it beyond recognition in the fifth and latest of his monologue shows, which opens Center Stage's Off Center series this weekend. Even the show's title, "Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead," is the antithesis of mush.

The New York reviews of "Pounding Nails" reinforce that impression. The New York Times praised Bogosian (pronounced shun) as "quite possibly our most vibrant bringer of bad tidings." In "Pounding Nails," these tidings are delivered by a dozen characters ranging from a drug-dealing biker to a disease-ridden homeless man who calls himself "your worst nightmare."

It's a cast not unlike the one that populated Bogosian's previous solo show, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," which he performed at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1991. Back then, Rolling Stone wrote, "if [audiences] encountered on the street such creatures as Bogosian puts before them, they would dart away with a naturally self-protective aversion."

"Pounding Nails" is a sequel to "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," Bogosian explains over the phone from his New York office. "I have, like, themes in my head of what I'm making the show about. 'Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll' was a lot about power, and this show is a lot about guilt." In addition, he says the monologues in "Pounding Nails" are "a lot rougher than they were before."

So what's this about gentleness and domesticity? Well, four years ago, Bogosian said "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" would be his last solo show. In part, he explains, he wanted to spend more time at home with his family. He and Jo Bonney, his wife and director, have two sons, Harris, 7, and Travis, 3.

Reflecting on how fatherhood has changed him, Bogosian, 41, says, in typical stream-of-consciousness fashion, "To really enjoy kids, you have to have a lot of faith, because if you're going to really love them, then you get afraid something is going to happen to them. So then you have to fake that nothing's going to happen. All of that makes me a more faithful person."

But while he acknowledges this feeling as his "mushy center," he's quick to add that he dislikes sentimentality -- particularly on stage. "It's like drinking sugar water," he says.

It's hardly something he could be accused of in his shows. To the contrary, he adopts the most extreme poses possible in an effort to shock audiences into taking a moral stand. (Yes, this spewer of profanity-strewn, violent diatribes is not only domestic at heart, he's also a moralist.)

"I've always liked doing stuff backwards," he says. "If I'm against nuclear war, I'm going to do a piece that says, 'Let's have nuclear wars,' and let the audience work to figure it out. If I'm against cooking elephants, I'm going to do a show about cooking elephants and have a recipe."

Shoe fetish

And, if the characters he portrays seem dissimilar to the mild, soft-spoken performer on the other end of the phone, well, that proves he's achieved another of his goals. "My fetish is to try to figure out what it would be like to walk in somebody else's shoes," he says. "I think that's the primary question all good theater presents to its audience. The more strongly that gets put forth, the better the theater is."

But at the same time, Bogosian believes there is an element of himself in each of his characters, and he wants audience members to see an element of themselves as well -- the more frightening, the better.

"If I'm successful, I think one sign of my success is stirring up a bunch of thoughts that you think, but didn't know you think," he explains, referring to repressed feelings of hostility or rage. "They're scary because they're there," he continues. "That's what's scary -- that there's all this anger."

Enjoying family life isn't all Bogosian has been up to between "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" and "Pounding Nails." He published his first novella, "Notes From Underground," and last spring, "subUrbia," a play he scripted but did not appear in, was produced at New York's Lincoln Center. "It was the best experience I ever had," he says of the drama about seven characters in their 20s. The action takes place in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in a suburban town not unlike Woburn, Mass., where Bogosian grew up.

"It's a vital piece. I think it came out really well. It was very exciting to see people under 75 in the theater," he says. "I'm not aware of much theater being done by or for people under 30."

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