The rarefied universe of Eric Bogosian is full of truth-tellers.
But here’s the thing: Some of them — the homeless, the mentally ill, the guys serving time — tell the truth because they have nothing to lose. But others — fast-talking lawyers, rabid consumers — reveal the truth in spite of themselves. And some articulate the truth virtually by accident.
We meet 12 characters in Bogosian’s finely crafted series of monologues, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.” Collectively, they project a sense of unconscious nihilism. These are people standing at the brink without knowing it.
In an impressive production at the Living Room, the gifted actor Forrest Attaway takes on the daunting task of performing Bogosian’s play in its entirety. But there was a catch. Each of the 12 characters, depicted in 12 successive episodes, was rehearsed under the eye of individual director.
Now, you might think that with that many chefs, the stew recipe could quickly fall out of whack. But that never happens. Somehow, the 12 directors got on the same page. There’s cohesion to Attaway’s performance that provides what might be called an oblique narrative drive, but also a clear articulation of Bogosian’s principal theme: the human and planetary cost of mindless consumerism.
Each of these characters is obsessed to some degree with money. Some don’t have any. Some have resigned themselves to never having any. Some have a lot and want more. And some think the can get it if they just find the perfect con.
You might think that a 1990 piece filled with social commentary might be showing its age by now. Maybe it does in small ways, but Bogosian’s themes remain remarkably — and depressingly — relevant. Yes, we really are poisoning the earth with chemicals. We really are poisoning ourselves at fast-food restaurants. We really do blind ourselves with drugs and alcohol. And increasingly we have consigned our fates to a global network of interactive computer systems.
Attaway, an actor who always brings a sense of immediacy to his work, is at his best in the show’s three most complex monologues.
In “Benefit,” directed by Cody Wyoming, he plays a veteran British rock star, ostensibly clean and sober, who gives a television interview in which he warns kids against drugs while glorying in his own drug-addled heyday — and bragging about a “charity” by which cigarettes and digital watches are donated by the boatload to primitive Amazonian tribesmen.
Matt Weiss directs “Stag,” a raucous narrative describing a bachelor party that goes catastrophically awry. The character, dim-witted and perpetually hung over, recounts an evening of drinking and drugging, hiring the services of hookers, watching porno movies, accidentally setting fire to an apartment kitchen and brawling with Hell’s Angels in a McDonald’s.
And in “Rock Law,” directed by Jerry Genochio, Attaway becomes a lawyer permanently attached to a telephone ear piece. As he paces in his office we hear his end of a series of conversations with business clients, dealmakers, his wife and his girlfriend. This is a guy with the instincts of a shark – and who basically stays high on his own untouchable ego.
Some of the shorter pieces are standouts as well. In “Dirt,” directed by Tim Ahlenius, Attaway becomes a character obsessed with the chain of pollutants that flow from our storm sewers into the creeks and rivers and oceans. Scott Cordes directs “Stud,” in which a rake in a bar casually recounts his ability to effortlessly seduce women. Attaway vividly embodies a convict in “X-Blow,” directed by Theodore “Priest” Hughes. Chris Roady directs “Live,” in which Attaway plays a man who must have the biggest, finest and most expensive merchandise as soon as it becomes available. And in “Dog Chameleon,” staged by Warren Deckert, he plays a man obsessed with gaining wealth as an act of revenge.
“Bottleman,” directed by Shawnna Journagan, strikes a poignant note as a character remains upbeat despite collecting bottles for a living and surviving on an egg-salad sandwich every two days. Similarly, Attaway plays a limping panhandler in the opening segment, “Grace of God,” directed by Taylor St. John. Mackenzie Goodwin directs “Candy,” a short, disturbing piece in which we hear the disembodied voice of a phone-sex provider.
And the show concludes with “Artist,” directed by Johnny Wolfe, in which Attaway plays a bathrobe-clad, dope-smoking character who tells us that he now only creates art in his imagination — because it’s the only way to keep it away from the commercial machine that turns art into a commodity.
Each segment is delineated crisply by John “Moose” Kimball’s lighting design. Megan Turek’s costumes are simple but effective. And in keeping with the Living Room’s posture as a theater that explores the masculine psyche without apology, Attaway is aided in his scene transitions by the Sexy Stagehands — Mandy Morris, Amy Kelly and Kenna Hall — whose skimpy costumes suggest pole-dancers in training. Morris is credited with the choreography.
Are the ladies more than gratuitous ornaments? Most definitely. Their presence keys into one of the play’s themes — that sex is a drug as potent as any other.