Angst, ennui among the embers

In 'Griller' at Center Stage, Eric Bogosian searches for meaning in middle-class life, a search that began in his own back yard.

Cover Story

November 21, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

It's a beauty, all right, several thousand dollars worth of American barbecue luxury. All that stainless steel gleaming beneath a suburban sky, enough room under the hood to grill a couple of racks of lamb and the side burner for some nice peppers and onions, with steel shelves for sauces, marinade, plates of burgers. On the stage it's a Volkswagen-sized metaphor for life after drugs and rock and roll, a marker of roads not taken.

A few years ago, playwright/ actor Eric Bogosian spotted a barbecue grill much like it in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. He could hardly believe his own limpid green eyes when he saw the price: $3,000. Three thousand bucks for a bleeping grill! Imagine having something like that.

Of course, Bogosian did. Pretty soon he's thinking about the grill, then he's talking and talking about it, then doing a stage interpretation of a guy at a suburban backyard grill. Bogosian -- the artsy Manhattan type with the black jeans and all that jittery street energy -- had discovered his inner suburban grilling guy.

Perhaps it was bound to happen, what with Bogosian having spent his youth in the suburbs and much time since then rummaging through his own deep inner space. He goes in, he bumps into all sorts of people. Since his first solo show in 1981, Bogosian has introduced theater audiences to a motley crew: druggies, drinkers, overeaters, tough guys, studs, paranoids, Hollywood sleazebags, self-help hustlers, sidewalk ranters. They speak from the groin, the glands, the dark places of the soul.

And now there's Gussie, a middle-age man with his own patch of suburban turf and a grip on the things that make his life his life. Not just the barbecue fork in his fist but the big house with the backyard gazebo, the greenhouse, the best mulch money can buy at $500 a load and the swimming pool with the cleanest water on the planet.

Here's Gussie on his 50th birthday surrounded by family and friends around the barbecue in the back yard of Bogosian's mind in "Griller," a two-act play opening Wednesday night at Center Stage. Bogosian -- rhymes with pug-ocean -- does not appear in the play but he wrote it, then rewrote it and rewrote it. He's been living on and off for years with Gussie, an incarnation of middle-age doubt, acquiescence and, yes, even satisfaction.

"I like him a lot," Bogosian says of Gussie. "But because there's a lot of me reflected in him I'm very critical of him, just like I'm very critical of myself.

"I think a real big issue for me, personally, in terms of how I make decisions about what I do in my life, orbits around the issue of courage. Like, am I not doing something 'cause I'm afraid to do it? ... I guess looking at Gussie and looking at Gussie's choices in his life, which have left him here at this time, I want to kind of pick at that a little bit and look at it. Was there something that you set out to do that you never accomplished? Is there something you, Gussie, you're disappointed in yourself about?"

Questions, questions

Gussie, played by David Garrison (a next-door neighbor on "Married...With Children"), is a former Sixties wild child who at some point steered off a potentially more exciting and risky career path and became a travel agent. He's done well -- the house, the marriage, the children. Yet the reappearance of an old college buddy, a fellow who took chances and made it big as a Hollywood producer, uncorks a cloud of Gussie's self-doubt. Did I really do OK? What might have been?

Questions, questions, questions. Bogosian seems to make them a way of work and of life.

He is 46 years old now and still wearing his hair in the wild wooliness of a Frank Zappa roadie, still doing public appearances in the beaten jeans, sneakers and sweat shirt, still performing solo shows with Jagger-like energy. A few things have changed, however, since Bogosian scratched out a drugged-up subsistence life in lower Manhattan's punky experimental theater and club scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He became a theatrical name brand, he did movies, he earned money, he got married and had two sons. He bought stuff.

The general outcome? New questions, questions, questions.

"I want to keep looking at my own pettiness, my own foibles," says Bogosian, who was introduced to a national audience by starring in "Talk Radio" in 1988, a movie version of his play directed by Oliver Stone. He has since appeared in about a dozen movies, including "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" with Steven Seagal, "Dolores Claiborne," "Deconstructing Harry," and in the TV shows "Law & Order" and the "Larry Sanders Show."

"I have become a fully fledged member of the materialistic society since I started to make some money 10 years ago," he says. "So I look at that part of myself and I watch what I do in that context."

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