No Slacking Off: Upstart Productions’ subUrbia

Eric Bogosian's subUrbia: Upstart Productions

Feel like getting sucker punched by a velvet-gloved fist?

Watch Upstart ProductionssubUrbia, Eric Bogosian’s 1994 dystopia drama about a group of slackers malingering outside a Pakistani owned convenience store, and you’ll get so caught up by the curiously engaging drama you might just miss its hard cold facts. Don’t worry—they’ll grab you when the time comes. Those realities creep up like day-old pizza grease dribbling down on a sweat-stained t-shirt. Wham-bam, your gut recoils from the impact and the head spins; you might reel back to find your butt planted against the convenience store pee-splattered brick wall with the slackers and not know how you got there. But then, reality has a nasty way of catching people off guard, and Bogosian exhibits a master’s expertise in expressing that sensation. This subUrbia is voracious, raging theatre for the sensation-starved.

Directorial bent: Upstart Productions is comprised of a ballsy bunch of intrepid theatre artists and savvy production wizards that brought to vivid life TopDog/UnderDog, This Is Our Youth and Talk Radio. In the small non-profit company’s first two years of existence, they have garnered Column Awards, high critical praise by the DFW Theatre Critics Forum and year end Critic’s Pick accolades for their artistic ventures. Don’t think they’ve slacked off one iota with the slacker play subUrbia. Following boldly on the heels of esteemed regional artists Rene Moreno and Regan Adair, who directed This Is Our Youth and Talk Radio, respectively, Upstart’s Artistic Director and play director Josh Glover has assembled a heavenly hellish cast of young regional talents and melded them into a fine-honed ensemble bursting with reality-based angst, anger, aspiration and blind self-delusion. Just as Moreno and Adair stamped their shows with signature style and clarity that elevated their works’ universality, Glover has directed subUrbia in a way that honors its 1990’s sensibility while its themes resonate with relevance for today’s audience. The play’s only cell phone carried by the one ‘privileged’ character is an actual relic of the era; the attire of successful singer-songwriter/folk rock artist character Pony is accurate down to self-conscious fashionista detail, as is the sort of acoustic music he plays. Glover describes the creation of Pony’s sound: “After Kurt Cobain committed suicide in ’94, there was a big resurgence in the folk rock genre. Hootie & the Blowfish had the top-selling album of the year in 1995. I imagine Pony’s band could be seen opening for the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls or Hootie…the lyrics appear in Bogosian’s script as performed, but (actor) Justin Locklear and I work-shopped the melodies and accompaniment”. His directorial intention to keep the intense, intimate slice-of-life performance as gritty and believable as possible spans from the characters’ violent physical contact to their solo monologues. Artistically, the show flows seamlessly along with each character depiction and plot element woven tightly, almost effortlessly, together. Yet the disparity between seeming and actual reality underpins the entire production through Glover’s careful blocking and natural-seeming character arcs. The play’s surprise ending elicited audible gasps of horror and surprise from opening night’s rapt, unsuspecting audience.

The “heavenly hellish cast”: Gracious, they are terrific. Every actor creates intriguing, nuanced, often repellent, but vibrant characters. Bogosian’s genius comes out in his characters and their voices. The success of his plays rests squarely on the veracity of their portrayals. With a show about twenty-something angst, it would be easy for actors to mope and whine themselves into predictable, nauseating, boring one-note performances. In Upstart Production’s subUrbia, just like in its fall 2009’s Talk Radio, (also by Bogosian) the stage crackles with valid human emotion, and boredom never enters the picture.

subUrbia's heavenly hellish cast

Lending an embittered air of xenophobic menace to the slacker crew, Andrews W. Cope holds nothing back in creating the sad reality of a disillusioned war vet whose passive and active aggression functions as the unsavory glue holding the group together. Closest thing to a true realist in the group, Cope portrays a macho, angry man who deals out pain to mask his own, yet still comprehends the ‘big picture’ reality of his life. With Zen-like resignation, he knows he’s stuck; his unwillingness to change is one of the play’s grim tragedies. Cope’s is an oddly beautiful and sensitive, sophisticated portrayal of a lost and repugnant character. Ryan Martin brings a hyper-kinetic comic physicality to the play as Buff, the group’s airhead, doper and general screwball. As written, Buff is a manic, over the top buffoon, a perpetual testosterone-driven Peter Pan. Martin explores with gusto every possible aspect of Buff, from cuddly to repulsive, in his nihilistic yet jovial determination to take absolutely no responsibility for his life whatsoever. When his performance veers towards caricature, he holds back just enough to avoid soaring over that brink; it’s delightful high-wire tightrope act to watch. Justin Locklear’s doe-eyed, romantic good looks and soulful delivery, speaking or singing, make him an ideal casting for the part of Pony, the up and coming folksinger/songwriter who has returned from LA with limo and publicist in tow to impress his former school chums, the slackers, and hit up on classy, ambitious Sooze. Pony is obnoxiously oblivious to the group dynamic destruction his arrival engenders as he’s so caught up in his self-indulgent nostalgic “memory” trip. Locklear portrays him to the sappy hilt, including singing his disgustingly banal folk songs with soggy lyrics with utter sincerity. Natalie Young’s depiction of her character Sooze’s aspiring actor monologue is so bizarre and full blown it ranks with Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm scene in the film When Harry Met Sally for memorable if gross humor. Sooze is an ambitious, bright gal with places to go; Young hauls the audience right along and then some. In contrast to Sooze’s fresh energy and naiveté, Samantha Rodriguez creates a consciously polished, spoiled LA brat/publicist in her portrayal of the risk-taking, superficial opportunist Erica, the least honest and moral character in the play. Her Erica works well with the ensemble, but I’d have preferred it if she were costumed and made up to look decidedly older than the rest of the cast. As sibling Pakistani owners of the convenience store parking lot cursed with the slackers’ unwelcome presence, Nasir Mehdi and Maryam Baig-Lush portray the genuine disgust and incomprehension motivated immigrants must feel when they encounter native born citizens wasting their lives with booze, drugs and consuming self-pity. Written pre-9/11, the immigrant perspective and issues portrayed have particular relevance today. That leaves the soul and protagonist of Bogosian’s play. In subUrbia, Bogosian splits these focal elements in two characters, adding an unexpected twist to the plot and uncanny emphasis to his themes of alienation and isolation. Cassie Bann’s character Bebe floats along like inconsequential background scenery through most scenes, to the point it’s easy to wonder why Bogosian even included her. Don’t get fooled. Bann portrays Bebe, an unmotivated, easy to ignore woman-child and occasional sex object with delicate subtlety, so much so that you may not notice her major transition as it emerges. As soul and catalyst of the play, nothing will remain the same after grubby, mousy Bebe makes her mind up. Cassie Bann does so much by doing so little and transforms absolutely everything like a bad dream come to life. Hers is an unforgettable performance. As protagonist Jeff and the playwright’s voice (presumably modeled after Bogosian, himself), Joey Folsom anchors this play and drives the action with his unique style that fluctuates somewhere between youthful Humphrey Bogart and pensive James Dean. Not to imply his acting is somehow derivative — Folsom is an original, a natural, a genuine article. He immerses himself in whatever character he portrays and can hold an audience breathless in the palm of his hand; in this case he’s rational-seeming Jeff, a man-boy who refuses to see the forest for the trees and acknowledge his self-sabotage until it’s too late. Like a degenerate Hamlet, Jeff dithers and makes reasonable sounding excuses to avoid change. The audience finds itself leaning in, straining to will Folsom’s Jeff to wake up and take charge of his life. His transformation does occur at the play’s end; the audience feels cathartic release as Folsom‘s Jeff recognizes his self-delusion through shocked grief. See it flicker in his eyes; sense it in the smallest shift of his lanky frame. His inaction, even as he remains totally still at the play’s end, is a thing of the past. He’s done with all that. It’s an impeccable portrayal.

The set: Another huge WOW, like Talk Radio’s. Upstart Productions isn’t a high budget operation, yet their designers manage to create utterly believable playing spaces. In Talk Radio’s case, it was the realistic interior of a 1980’s radio station; in subUrbia’s case, it’s the sidewalk and lot in front of and massive brick wall adjacent to a 1990’s convenience store. The parking lot curb looks made of concrete; the brick wall appears like real masonry; the convenience store–from interior light strips to its stocked shelves, to the pay phone out front—all seen at a slant so the action focuses on the slackers’ corner of the parking lot – feels like it got transported to the theater directly from the 1990’s. It’s artistic and realistic at the same time. Kudos to the design team of Zachary Broadhurst and Cindy Ernst as well as sound designer Mason York and lighting designer Scott Payne who conspired to define the ongoing 1990’s ambience. Hats off as well to props designer Donny Covington and costume designer Korey Kent for finding all the right stuff to make those aspects of the 1990’s come to life so effectively. In spite of the intimacy of the Green Zone theater space, Jeremy Stein’s fight choreography never looks “staged” or feels anything but delivered with real punch. Up close and in your face.

Upstart Productions has done it again, folks. Their subUrbia by Eric Bogosian is the real deal. It’s voracious, raging theatre for the sensation-starved. It plays through April 10th at The Green Zone, 161 Riveredge Drive.

For tickets go to www.upstarttheater.com. Or call SmartTix at (877) 238-5596. Check out their video trailer for the production and join Team Upstart Wednesday nights after the show, 3/24 and 4/7, at Buzzbrew’s, 4334 Lemmon Avenue, for specially-priced three course meals, reverse happy hour, trivia games and live karaoke.

NOTE: this play contains adult language and content as well as cigarette smoking.

PHOTOS by Marc Rouse.

#1: (Left to right) Cassie Bann, Justin Locklear, Natalie Young, Ryan Martin, Joey Folsom

#2: (Left to right) Cassie Bann, Ryan Martin, Natalie Young, Joey Folsom

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