Comedy of manners from king of curses

Review: Eric Bogosian, the anti-establishment performance artist, promotes family values in his new play, `Griller.'

November 26, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Unlikely as it might sound, Eric Bogosian -- he of the angry, violent, profanity-strewn monologues -- has written a comedy of manners.

"Griller," which is making its East Coast debut at Center Stage under David Warren's direction, is Bogosian's take on morality, family and society in suburban America in the late 1990s.

Compared to his monologues, "Griller," in which Bogosian does not appear, is surprisingly tame and ultimately affirmative. Bogosian, a counterculture performance artist and product of the anti-establishment late 1960s and early 1970s, has written a play promoting -- of all things -- family values.

There's still a dose of profanity and a touch of violence, though far, far less than there was in the play's premiere production in Chicago two seasons ago. The playwright, who has been in residence at Center Stage throughout the rehearsal period, has made major revisions, in some cases trimming too close to the bone. The first act, in particular, feels thin, and some of the characters are under-developed. Overall, what he's come up with is a mild look at growing up, a process he clearly believes continues well into adulthood.

Gussie, the play's protagonist, has invited his family -- mother, sister, nephew and two grown children -- to celebrate his 50th birthday at a backyard barbecue. "Everything's good, everything's in harmony," Gussie says less than 10 minutes into the first act, a comment that's as good as a promise that disharmony is right around the corner.

Facing the half-century mark, Gussie -- ably portrayed by David Garrison as a decent, if creature-comfort obsessed, suburbanite -- finds himself slightly troubled by the realization that his idealistic past has given way to an affluent, status-conscious present, the latest indication of which is the $5,000 mega-barbecue grill that gives the play its name.

But if Gussie worries that he might have sold out, those worries are put in perspective by the arrival of Nick, an old college friend Gussie has recently run into and invited to join the family festivities. Like the hometown-boy-turned-rock star who returns to upset the order of life in Bogosian's 1994 play, "subUrbia," Nick, a highly successful movie producer, arrives in a limo escorted by a beautiful young woman.

Henry Woronicz's smug Nick appears to be living the American dream, but when Gussie tries to reminisce about the good old days, Nick turns out to be a cold-blooded hedonist. He and his mean-spirited ex-model girlfriend (Vera Cox) are the foils who set Gussie's value system back on track. As his old chum spells out his cigarette-and-sex-driven philosophy of life, Garrison's Gussie registers a mixture of shock and barely concealed horror.

This conversation is one of numerous scenes in which Bogosian isolates a pair of characters for little tete-a-tetes. It's a structure that's too pat in a play that ends with an even more pat denouement as Gussie's mother, Gramma Betty (Scotty Bloch), breaks through the realistic framework and sums things up with a brief monologue, delivered straight to the audience.

Though Gramma Betty appears to be one of the more interesting characters, we never really get to know her. Nor do we find out anything substantial about Gussie's Wall Street trader son (Josh Radnor), except that he is the polar opposite of his arty, disaffected sister (Chelsea Altman) -- two children who neatly represent the two sides of their father's personality.

More troublesome yet is the seemingly perfect character of Gussie's wife, Michelle (Caitlin Clarke), a paragon of maturity in a play peopled with overgrown adolescents. Unlike Gussie, who throws a tantrum when he discovers Michelle was unable to get cilantro for his "special" barbecue sauce, she barely blinks when he tosses her homemade birthday cake into the pool.

Director Warren's cast delivers accomplished performances -- as slick as designer Derek McLane's suburban backyard set, a more realistic set than usual for Center Stage. That slickness may be symptomatic of the difficulties underlying "Griller," a play that gets the surfaces right, but doesn't dig deep enough to uncover the heart the playwright aches to extol.

The result is that, despite the heat implied by its title, "Griller" has little fire. Instead of passion, it settles for warmth, a temperature that's comfortable, even satisfying, but rarely deeply moving.


Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 1 p.m. Dec. 15. Through December 19

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

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