Down on the corner 

subUrbia simmers in post-teen angst

There’s a habitual illusion among tormented high schoolers and faux-enlightened college students, especially those with a few swigs of Natty Light warming their bellies: that the problems of the world, mankind’s collective moral demise and, more immediately, the plights of their cronies can all be solved on some suburban street corner in the middle of the night. We all did it in some form, in some parking lot gathering spot, on some stoop next to a convenience store, some coffee shop or record exchange, consuming whatever it was any nearby establishment served—pizza, caffeine, cigarettes—and whatever contraband somebody had hoarded—pot, booze, more cigarettes. For me it was a High’s parking lot (think Holiday on the East Coast) with 69-cent hot dogs, shoplifted Fritos and cans of Milwaukee’s Best. We lamented the necessity of college majors, boring television reruns, and, naturally, the utter hopelessness of the planet. I’m sure you have your own story, and a better beer attached to the memory.

It’s been more than a few years since my street-corner problem-solving days, but I’m led to believe the kids are still congregating, still smoking and drinking, and still solving the world’s problems—as well as, one hopes, their own—one slice of pizza and one Camel Light at a time. That’s the message, anyway, of Eric Bogosian’s 1994 play-turned-movie subUrbia, which has been slightly updated and produced locally for the stage by When in Rome Productions (WIRP). Bogosian’s script is heavy, but the theme is relatable for anyone who ever questioned everything beyond the borders of their teenage years: nothing is right in the world, our future is crap, and dammit, dude, stop bogarting the joint so I can start to figure it all out. Or something desperate like that.

It’s an interesting twist that some of Missoula’s more enterprising and motivated students have pulled this story of dire slacker angst up by its bootstraps. Nobody in this summer production company—started so some UM drama students wouldn’t have to leave the city to do stock theater elsewhere—would seem to be the drink-all-day, Twinkee-eating, slugs subUrbia portrays. There’s simply no time, considering that WIRP went more or less straight from producing the funny and professional-caliber The Star-Spangled Girl in July to putting together subUrbia one month later.

Bogosian’s play is set entirely in front of a suburban mini-mart run by Pakistanis and frequented by a crew of 20-something failures in waiting. There’s Tim (Justin Fell), a racist Air Force dropout who drinks the heaviest and barks the loudest; Buff (Timothy Patrick Wickes), the “Jackass” type who’s recklessly athletic, harmlessly wasted and unapologetically horny; Jeff (Jason F. Hicks), a wannabe difference maker who rants more than he takes action; Jeff’s girl Sooze (Brielle Lande), an aspiring performance artist who riffs freely about her naughty bits (note: definitely not a family show); and her friend Bee-Bee (Sarah Greenfield), a surprisingly grounded nurse’s aide with some personal baggage. This motley quintet drinks and gets high outside the mini-mart day after day.

This day, however, is different: Pony (Thomas Bruner), an old high-school buddy who’s made it as a rock star, is in town for a concert and has promised to swing by the old corner. His arrival means something to everyone—a meaningful conversation for Sooze, a chance to talk about revolution for Jeff, a joyride in a limo for Buff. But when Pony arrives with his publicist (Rachel K. Ross) in tow, the vibe turns not so chill and the Clerks-ish commentaries subside as the play takes a darker turn.

Director Kaet Morris, an undergraduate drama student, handles the material’s two aspects well. The larger cast—nine characters as opposed to Star-Spangled’s three—and the larger set work efficiently within the story; characters not central to specific scenes but still onstage maintain a subtle presence, such as when Wickes’ convincingly blotto Buff rocks and sways in the corner, presumably in his own drunken tussle with “the spins,” while other characters fight things out at center stage. More than anything, Morris keeps the story moving swiftly even when the action is essentially a bunch of loiterers rambling and getting wasted.

The performances are also consistent throughout, with a few standouts emerging from the ensemble. Wickes is dead-on as Buff and looks like he’s having as much fun as his character is supposed to. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Fell verges on frightening as the vicious Tim, channeling the character’s pent-up hate and anti-everything attitude with palpable rage. Greenfield is a quiet presence as Bee-Bee, but viewers who watch her closely will be impressed at the depth she brings to the character, and Ross, who was the star in Star-Spangled Girl, brings plenty of spark to this smaller role.

SubUrbia’s only downside is that, as in Star-Spangled Girl, the WIRP talent comes across better than the script. Bogosian’s contemporary, Godot-like commentary on goalless post-teens who do nothing—they’re not even waiting for something—struck off-key in some of its tantrums. Its scope is still culturally applicable, I think, but even after some small tweaks by WIRP it’s in need of a broader update. Ignorant questions about the impact of AIDS and references to “Gilligan’s Island” seem stale.

Then again, perhaps it’s just that those are the same topics I discussed outside High’s a decade ago. The thought that the more things change the more they stay the same is usually a comfort, but one hopes today’s wandering 20-somethings, what with Google and cable and everything else, are at least a little better informed. Or at least drinking better beer.

When in Rome Production’s subUrbia continues through Saturday, Aug. 19, in the Masquer Theatre inside UM’s PAR/TV building at 7:30 PM, with a Sunday, Aug. 20, matinee at 2 PM. $5/$7 couples.

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