Eric Bogosian turns anger into entertainment

November 12, 1995|By Hap Erstein | Hap Erstein,COX NEWS SERVICE

Eric Bogosian makes his living being angry. And on the theatrical Richter scale, his newest show is off the charts.

"This show rants," he says of "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee," the 90-minute, stand-up-comic hectoring he will bring to Center Stage Friday and Saturday.

How angry is it? Mr. Bogosian explains, sort of. "When bikers hang around with bikers, they're just having a good time. But if you hung around with bikers, they'd probably scare you.

"And that's what I'm doing," he says. "It's biker theater."

Mr. Bogosian stops and listens to what he's just said.

"Wait, if you write 'biker theater,' the place is going to be mobbed with them." Mr. Bogosian mulls the thought and decides he likes the idea. "See, I want to make stuff that anybody can walk in -- anybody who's like my kind of person, which is [if] they like rock and roll and they're under 600 years old and had sex some time in the last year -- they can come in, just sit there and just dig it."

Though he is a professional venom spewer, the fact is, it's just an act. "Personally, I'm boring as a bowl of oatmeal," he admits, "but onstage, I'm pretty threatening."

Whether or not his private world is strictly Quaker instant, when he gets going in his solo stage shows, he does a convincing imitation of a madman.

His show is a collection of thoughts about whatever has annoyed him lately. Mr. Bogosian rants at length on subjects ranging from Arab terrorists to God to "Forrest Gump." But it remains unclear whether he is really angry or just recognizes a good shtick when he sees it.

Call it therapy. Call it a way for Mr. Bogosian to sift through his thoughts and make a buck. Whatever you call it, it's hilarious. "Everything that's passing through my skull, I'm trying to get it out there, dramatizing it in some way and making it funny."

Funny, but with an attitude.

"I do kind of edgy stuff," says Mr. Bogosian. "It's not 'Cats.' "

The mention of Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline pageant -- about as far removed from a Bogosian performance as you could get -- launches him into a riff about audiences and the woeful state of Broadway.

"They'll stay at 'Cats,' because they've paid all that money to see it, and they'd be embarrassed to admit that they're bored out of their minds, which is really what is the case with most Broadway theater. It's just dreadful and it's torture, but it's become some kind of strange rite of passage that everybody should go see things on Broadway so they can talk about having gone and seen things on Broadway."

Mr. Bogosian, regardless of where he tours, is decidedly off-Broadway. The 42-year-old, Massachusetts-born actor-playwright graduated from Oberlin College with a drama degree 19 years ago, then gravitated to New York to try his hand at the performance-art scene. Soon he was creating his one-person plays and appearing in clubs in the guise of Ricky Paul, a racist, sexist stand-up comic.

His breakthrough performance piece was 1986's "Drinking in America," a rapid-fire series of urban monologues populated by pimps, hustlers, evangelists, yuppies and -- gasp! -- agents. A year later, he unleashed Barry Champlain, the malicious, foul-mouthed radio call-in host in his play "Talk Radio," which Oliver Stone filmed in 1988. It led to other film work -- most recently, "Delores Claiborne" and "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" -- while he turned out a succession of solo stage pieces including "Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll" (which was also made into a movie) and "Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead."

Mr. Bogosian speaks passionately about theater and about the communal experience, in which audiences are encouraged to keep their brains in gear.

"It's important, because you figure you're playing to people who are actually listening," he explains. "It isn't just a precursor to some Haagen-Dazs after the show, like a date show. My show is like a serial murderer show. If you're a serial murderer, you come and see my show."

Mr. Bogosian concedes that in his early days as a monologuist, when he would venture out of New York, audiences didn't always know quite what to make of him. "I remember one time playing in Vancouver and the whole audience moved their chairs to the other end of the room. And I was all by myself at the other end. They were, like, frightened."

These days, with several of his one-man shows broadcast on cable television and out on videocassette, audiences are more likely to be prepared.

In fact, Mr. Bogosian's reputation and his plays have now gotten past customs and are performed in the most unlikely spots overseas. "The coolest one is -- 'Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll' has been running in Buenos Aires for over three years," he says.

"Some of my stuff, I guess when it gets translated to another country, it's seen as extremely revolutionary. They see it very emotionally. I did a character who's just talking about how Big Brother is watching you and you have to be really careful about freedom of speech, but it was all done in this really ludicrous, funny fashion. Like the microwave oven is going to pop open and turn you into dust if you don't do what the TV set wants you to do.

"Well, I guess when this guy does this down in Argentina, it's a big deal, because they really have that stuff. Death squads and all that. There are places that are a lot like the United States. I don't think Argentina is one of them."

However political some of Mr. Bogosian's material sounds, he insists he is not out to change people's minds, but merely to entertain.

"Wake Up and Smell the Coffee"

Who: Eric Bogosian

Where: Center Stage When: Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $25; $15 for students

$ Call: (410) 332-0033

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