Daniel Eric Gold, Diksha Basu, Manu Narayan, Peter Scanavino,and Kieran Culkin in subUrbia
(© Joan Marcus)
Daniel Eric Gold, Diksha Basu, Manu Narayan, Peter Scanavino,
and Kieran Culkin in subUrbia
(© Joan Marcus)
There's a certain amount of irony in staging Eric Bogosian's subUrbia in New York City. The play is set in an unnamed American suburb, and its characters, particularly the wannabe performance artist Sooze (Gaby Hoffman), view New York as if it were the contemporary equivalent of the Moscow to which Chekhov's three sisters long to escape. Like the famed Russian's characters, the young men and women in subUrbia -- first seen at Lincoln Center in 1994, and updated for this mounting -- are stuck. Unable or unwilling to realize their dreams, they hope for an outside intervention that will rescue them from their miserable existence. "All I want to do is make something that shatters the world," says college dropout Jeff (Daniel Eric Gold). "If I can't do that, I don't want to do anything."

While this new Second Stage production is not quite earth-shattering, it's nonetheless memorable, thanks to a terrific ensemble cast and solid direction by Jo Bonney. The action of the play unfolds in front of a convenience store owned and operated by Nazeer "Norman" Chaudry (Manu Narayan) and his sister, Pakeeza (Diksha Basu). Set designer Richard Hoover has crafted a full-scale replica of an actual store, a gleaming environment that practically screams artificiality and mass production. As the owners try to maintain order, the young adults who hang out at the store bring with them a sense of chaos. Tim (Peter Scanavino) is an alcoholic former soldier with racist tendencies and a streak of self-destructiveness. Buff (Kieran Culkin) is a roller-blading slacker. Bee-Bee (Halley Feiffer) is a recovering addict. Jeff and Sooze are romantically involved, but their relationship is foundering even before rock star Pony (Michael Esper), a hometown boy made good, returns -- with his pretty publicist Erica (Jessica Capshaw) in tow -- and shakes things up.

One of the play's strengths is that Bogosian exposes the flaws and weaknesses of the characters without dismissing them as human beings, even if they themselves don't believe in their own inherent worth. This is particularly true of Tim; his neo-fascist rhetoric in the play's opening scene seems to mark him as irredemable, yet the anger and self-loathing that motivates his behavior becomes increasingly clear and is vividly brought to the fore by Scanavino. Feiffer's quiet second-act speech about the horrors of rehab is chilling, making Bee-Bee's fateful decision later in the play understandable but still tragic. Gold's emotionally raw portrayal of Jeff inspires sympathy even when the character is acting like a jerk.

As the irrepressible Buff, Culkin provides needed comic relief and hints at hidden emotional depths that are only partially plumbed within the script. Sooze longs to be an artist even as she struggles with her own inability to say anything meaningful; Jeff's description of idealism as "guilty, middle-class bullshit" seems an unkind but accurate description of her point of view. Even Pony, by far the most successful of his peers, feels insecure. Further evidence of this comes in the form of two songs (music by Esper, lyrics by Bogosian) sung by Pony; their folk-rock rhythms have a plaintive quality that communicates his loneliness.

Bogosian has updated his script in both subtle and non-subtle ways. References to iPods, American Idol, TiVo, and so on are seamlessly incorporated, reflecting how significantly the pop cultural landscape has changed in a mere 12 years. More importantly, the shadow of September 11, 2001 has had profound effects on certain characters, particularly Tim, who briefly served as air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom; the epithets he hurls at the Pakistani Nazeer now include the word "terrorist." Nazeer's back story has also been expanded; he cites a regime change in Pakistan as the key factor that forced him and his sister to flee the country. Though this revelation serves to flesh out the character, it comes across as rather forced and is one of the production's few false moments.

Bonney, who is married to Bogosian, almost always finds the right balance between cynicism and sentimentality within the play. As a result, this production of subUrbia is a portrait of disaffected youth that's both moving and thought-provoking.