SubUrbia takes place over the course of one very long night that starts out like any other for a group of friends who go back to childhood together. You get the feeling that every night sees them sitting in this same parking lot, making the same jokes, telling the same stories, drinking the same beer. Jeff and Sooze (Shane Nelson and Sydney Machesky) argue about whether or not to move to New York, Buff (Jordan Fritz) expounds on his hedonistic conquests, Tim (Donnevan Tolbert) rails against pretty much everyone, Bee-Bee (Shannon Grant) tags along, and Norman and Pakeeza (Zyle Cook and Tayler Jones) try to deal with the riff-raff in a perpetual holding pattern outside their store. But tonight is different. Tonight, the one member of their group who has left town and made it big as a rock star is coming back to hang out - but when? He said he'd be here, they intone over and over, like Didi and Gogo waiting underneath that infamous tree. But unlike Godot, Pony (Brad Smith) does eventually appear with his publicist Erica (Hannah Butcher) in tow, opening everyone's eyes to what could be, what isn't, and what never can be.
First off, I'll confess - I don't particularly like this script. It's a little too long, it's hard to find most of these characters' problems important enough to get all worked up about, and it gets a little tiresome listening to the "my nothing is way more important than your something" argument of the disenfranchised grunge/parking lot set. Though there have clearly been updates to the script from its original 1990s placement (they have cell phones and TiVo now), the soul of the play never quite seems to catch up with what I tend to believe resonates with today's audience. And on a side note - these young, young actors are adorably inconsistent with their use of the payphone - totally foreign technology to them!
Still, despite my general discontent with Bogosian's free-floating anxiety, I did see a lot of really good work up there. Shane Nelson as Jeff is the central character of the play, and though he tends to be a little one note in his sustained anger, he is believable and approachable, and he does a good job of bringing his inner conflict to life. Jordan Fritz seems a little miscast as the philandering Buff, but he doesn't shy away from the sex, drugs, and street hockey of it all. And he does deliver some genuinely funny moments at times that we really needed them. Donnevan Tolbert delivers one of the play's strongest performances as the violent, racist drunk, Tim. There is a lot of darkness and ugliness in what this character says and does - it's heavy lifting for any actor to have words like this in your mouth, let alone a first-year BA theatre major like Tolbert. But he is believable and unsettling in his unending cloud of rage. His character ends up being hard to watch in all the right ways. Brad Smith as Pony is a much needed jolt of energy in Bogosian's ode on stagnation. He oozes charisma and confidence, and does a great job of being everything that these other people aren't. (The director's decision to have him hold a guitar while singing along with a CD demo, however, makes no sense at all.) Sydney Machesky's Sooze provides the most dynamic character arc of the play - as she is probably the only character with real, tangible dreams driving her, and Machesky does a fantastic job balancing the wide-eyed suburban girl she is with the gritty performance artist she wants to be. Shannon Grant shows excellent vulnerability as the tagalong Bee-Bee, and she does an admirable job of filling in the blanks left by Bogosian as she trips along in the shadow of his more bombastic characters. Hannah Butcher as Erica is perfectly out of place, slumming it here with these suburban malcontents, and she does a great job using her sex appeal without overplaying it. Zyle Cook and Tayler Jones as the convenience store owner and his sister do a good job playing the Pakistani characters and dialect without making them caricatures. They are smaller roles, but also somehow ever-present in the person of their store on stage, and there is a sensitivity and delicacy to them both that counteracts the blunt-object anger of the central characters nicely (though Cook is sometimes a little difficult to hear).
Director Bilha Birman-Rivlin does what she can to string all of this anger together into a narrative. The characters sort of orbit each other without ever demonstrating the real attachments and connections that I tend to need to invest in their situations, but there are some genuinely clever and engaging moments that win out over Bogosian's malaise to create what is overall not a bad evening of theatre. Lisa Charlotte Berg's set is a shining star of the evening, doing a fantastic job of placing us in the parking lot. With trash strewn about, it feels almost like we're sitting with these kids in a dumpster, just waiting until the day they're finally tossed out. Mike Hallberg's lighting and sound design both fill out the world very well, leading us from dusk to dawn, and scene to scene with nuance and care. And Sarah Bloch's costumes communicate volumes about each character from the second they set foot on the stage.
All in all, SubUrbia is sort of like an angry, vulgar episode of Seinfeld. Nothing happens. And while it's not a play that I would have chosen, it is a play that is showcasing some really excellent talent, and one that, in its all-too-brief run, deserves to be seen!
SubUrbia by Eric Bogosian (Director: Bilha Birman-Rivlin) continues at the Wayne State University Studio Theatre through April 5. Tickets are $10-$12. For more information, visit http://www.cfpca.wayne.edu/theatreanddance/