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Creature Discomfort 

Laughing at Eric Bogosian's spoiled characters is almost too easy

Wednesday, Apr 9 2003
"Alienation," says one of Eric Bogosian's solo-show characters, a shyster spiritualist passing bad advice to a crowded hall, "is simply a lack of money. And of course the corollary: Money brings deep and abiding harmony."

The four modern young sophisticates in Humpty-Dumpty, Bogosian's new play at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, run on the same principle. They thrive on the luxuries of an eggshell known as modern civilization, and when the shell cracks, they have no idea what to do. Nicole, Max, Troy, and Spoon drive up from Manhattan for a week of downtime in a well-outfitted remodeled barn, somewhere in upstate New York. The place has everything -- bluestone fireplace, espresso machine, cedar Jacuzzi, quilts -- "all in a life-affirming, isolated, picturesque setting far from the madding crowd," as Max the novelist puts it. His painfully hip screenwriter friend Troy (from L.A.) breaks out the '82 Bordeaux and Kosovar sheep's-milk cheese; they put on an old Stones record and roll a joint from Troy's stash, and things are just about to go really well when the lights go out.

Easy as that. No more harmony. The blackout is so total that not even their cell phones work. (Local relay stations are dead, along with every single radio transmitter.) What happened is a mystery. Soon a heavy snowstorm blankets the region, and law enforcement sets up roadblocks; it isn't clear that the outage is not some kind of terrorist attack. Driving back to New York seems impossible. Nicole, the control-freak editor who needs to be in touch with her office because of a book deadline, starts to unravel, and Troy turns into a relentless asshole. A few days of relaxation in the woods become a season in hell for these helpless, ironically minded thirtysomething kids.

The simplicity of Bogosian's idea has a powerful charm. How soft has America become? How deeply do even sophisticated people believe that spiritual harmony consists in creature comforts? Well, turn off the lights and let's see. If Bogosian were a great writer, you might expect a graceful Chekhovian going-to-seed of this group of languishing urbanites -- or, even better, a brilliant takedown of the chattering classes against a background of world disaster, like Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. It's always fun to watch a satirist go after his own circle of friends, and Shaw used the distant thunder of World War I to criticize the way Bloomsbury intellectuals mouthed off about politics and art in their suburban London gardens, circa 1914.

I'm afraid nothing quite so brilliant is going on here. Bogosian is a funny guy and a good satirist. His characters wind themselves into amusing, messy confusions when their toys are taken away, but then none of these people is very significant to start with, so laughing at them is almost too easy. The character of Troy is a perfect example. He has gelled blond hair and affects a street-wise attitude, but he knows more than his straight-laced friends about wine and cheese and yellow caviar. I think that's well observed. I once overheard an edgy, skin-pierced hipster say to her friend, in a serious voice, "Oh, man, last night I had some bomb-ass, uh -- stuffed mushrooms?" and I knew it was just a matter of time before she found herself sipping merlot with her girlfriends in Calistoga.

Nicole's character is also sharp: We all know people who cannot function without hot running water and electricity, and for Nicole it's the end of the world. Her life becomes a circus. She turns bitchy and impossible, and by accident cuts her finger on a knife, then pouts on the couch, wrapped in quilts, and blames the whole calamity on her husband Max.

Spoon and Max embody a few good observations, too -- about hippie-child actresses and self-serious writers -- but the upshot is that they're all spoiled, and we recognize that fact from the start. The acting also feels generally stiff, I think because playing such close-at-hand types is always hard on an actor. The only person who survives the blackout unruffled is a burly local named Nat (performed beautifully by Andy Murray), who looks after the house for the owners and provides our mewling children with bottled water and firewood.

The trouble with Humpty-Dumpty is that Bogosian fails to dredge; he just makes fun of surface things. Everyone knows luxury won't bring a deep and abiding harmony. Espresso machines and cedar Jacuzzis are just the froth of American life, and most smart people function on something more substantial -- on philosophies, assumptions, and self-justifications, which may not be stable or true but which Bogosian can't even approach.


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