Chicago Theater Review: SUBURBIA (Level 11 Productions at the Athenaeum Theatre)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: SUBURBIA (Level 11 Productions at the Athenaeum Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on August 3, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


It’s easy to hate the surly slackers in subUrbia, Eric Bogosian’s slice of strife. In this 1994 play, they infest the parking lot of a 7-Eleven—now changed to a Quickie Mart—in the bedroom burg of Burnfield, the “pizza and puke capital of the world.” (I guess the mall is too genteel.) There, they chug beer, suck on cancer sticks, blast boom boxes, rollerblade to nowhere and gripe that life hasn’t handed them the respect and cash they’re too lazy to earn. Alienated from a future as much as the past, they’re as awesomely real as the Dunkin’ Donuts kids (in Chicago at Clark and Belmont) on a slow Saturday night. Both drifting and trapped, they’re at a turning point but nothing is moving. They’re staring into a void called “Is THIS all there is?”


It’s easy to fear them too; their testosterone-fueled boredom can erupt into xenophobia, sexism, racism, homophobia, bashing, suicide and moshing (not in order of stupidity). It’s even easier to pity them: for all the boy-men’s macho bluster and the girl-women’s cynical self-pity, they have found no worthy work to mark their passage to adulthood. Festering with fallow energy and thought-spared brains, they’re apt symbols of a schizoid society that’s equally youth-worshipping and youth-hating and that has (barely) educated them into a marginal minimum-wage existence. Their anomie may be a kind of prescience.


The hard part is to understand them, which makes Bogosian’s feat remarkable—to get beyond the Beavis and Butt-Head stereotypes and tap both the dynamism and the despair of these lost boys and girls. Strangely, when he does they resemble Chekhov’s drifting dreamers; in fact, Bogosian gives one a regretful speech straight from Uncle Vanya. In turn Justin Baldwin’s staging taps the script, igniting the kamikaze risk-taking required by such stunning scenes. It’s the same gonzo, take-no-prisoners intensity that Bogosian dug into in Talk Radio and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and, clearly, it’s contagious.


The fact that there’s no plot for such characters is the point (or that the dated references to VCRs and AIDS don’t fit with anachronisms like smartphones). The angriest of the self-destructing crew are Jeff (Brendan Monte), a brainy college drop-out who uncompromisingly will either shatter the world or do nothing at all and poisonously envies all who break away from Burnfield, and ex-G.I. Tim (artistic director Grant Michael Johnson), a dangerous, alcoholic bigot who spews his self-hatred at the hard-working Pakistani brother and sister (Jesse-James Austin and Kiayla Jackson) who just want to work hard to do well and keep the parking lot free of beer cans and broken glass.


Tim wants to teach Jeff to stop fearing the world, but all he offers are new ways to fail. More complex because he retains some endangered decency, Jeff just wants to feel real. Playing jester to these pent-up drifters is wired, wacky, hyper Buff (Colin David), a dumbass druggie anesthetized by his own ignorance. (In this world that may not deny him success.)


Less monumentally messed-up, the women are Jeff’s estranged and amoral girlfriend Sooze (Erin Nedelman), a man-hating performance artist ripe for New York, and Bee Bee (Halie Ecker), a sad, mysterious and expendable young woman who graduated from a rehab clinic into nothing at all. Setting off their stasis is charismatic Pony (Logan Hulick), a high school buddy who’s made an MTV video. Now, seeking a bogus authenticity by slumming it with his loser chums, he’s returned, romanticizing his crude classmates, in a limo with his PR handler Erica (Amber Calderon). His ironic function is to show that the good life his ex-buddies crave can be just as hidebound and entrapping as their own dead-ends.


Level 11 Productions’ revival explodes slow dynamite over two hours, its major detonations Johnson’s volatile and often unbearable Tim, Monte’s quietly desperate Jeff, and Ecker’s out-of-control airhead. More truly, like Roadworks’ best work this is catnip for a ripe ensemble. It’s unapologetically accurate to Bogosian’s ugly indictment, an unredeemably bleak group portrait that you’ll love to hate.


photos by Sam Bengtson

Level 11 Productions
Athenaeum Theatre
2936 N Southport Ave
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on August 30, 2015
for tickets, call 773.935.6875
or visit Athenaeum

Leave a Comment