From my corner room in the corner apartment of the corner building atop a hill in Kew Gardens Hills, the western view was alluring: a little bit of New York City skyline, a little bit of actual sky. Ten or 20 miles east of the back of my building lay suburbia: Long Island.
While I knew kids whose windows, whether real or metaphorical, faced distinctly east, I don’t remember them resembling the inimitable, endearing and entertaining slackers that populate Eric Bogosian’s 1994 play subUrbia, now being revived at Second Stage. Bogosian’s updating of the play is a very cool brew: characters reference Iraq, Darfur, the Internet and one even blithely whips out a Blackberry. But you never feel like these, or any other up-to-the-minute cultural and political references, have been shoehorned into the script. Equally impressive are the ways Bogosian communicates how the post-Generation X generation, which is presumably being depicted now, is fundamentally no different from the original Gen-Xers he plunked onstage a dozen years ago. When a skater dude named Buff (the stunning Kieran Culkin) brags about how, should he become a rock star, he and his girlfriend would wake up every day, “screw for about an hour” and “spend the rest of the morning trashed, watching American Idol on TiVo,” I wonder which season of Idol he means.
Much of what’s enthralling about subUrbia is how Jo Bonney (who happens to be Bogosian’s wife) directs the play. Her staging seems passionately freeform, as if she has told the actors to, you know, do whatever, and they’re all extremely committed to doing, you know, whatever. Having a first-rate cast capable of first-rate acting makes this work; Bonney’s even greater accomplishment is how she infuses the entire atmosphere of the production with such energetic malaise. Like Bogosian’s writing, her direction is all about elevated realism. Sitting through her production is like experiencing a very long, clarifying high—like a double-whopper doobie.
Bogosian and Bonney’s accomplishments are particularly remarkable because subUrbia’s characters are really a census of clichés. Beyond Buff, there’s Jeff (a brooding Daniel Eric Gold), whose college career is as lame as his going-nowhere relationship with Sooze (a kooky Gaby Hoffmann), an aspiring performance artist. As Tim (a smoky Peter Scanavino), an Iraq war vet, is busy bitterly boozing, oddball Bee-Bee (a sulky Halley Feiffer) revels in her recent emergence from rehab.
Just as when Lincoln Center Theater produced subUrbia 12 years ago, the biggest cliché is the set: a 7-Eleven run by Pakistani expatriate siblings, Norman and Pakeeza (Manu Narayan and Diksha Basu). Erudite and slightly snarky, the duo function like a Greek chorus—the play’s moral anchor. Their presence elicits the worst kind of racist slurs and instincts from several of the deadbeat slouches that refuse to hang out anywhere except outside the convenience store. It makes the faithfully recreated onstage shrine to the Slurpee, meticulously designed by Richard Hoover, pretty much the pessimistic symbol of their young lives, going nowhere but due south.
Through Oct. 29. Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St.
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