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COVER STORY : Hello, America . . . Eric Bogosian Calling : Having earned a reputation as a biting commentator on stage, the monologuist wants to put his vision on the big screen

<i> Hilary De Vries is a free-lance writer in Cambridge, Mass</i>

Eric Bogosian waits impatiently for his coffee-to-go--"double espresso, no sugar, no lemon"--in a chichi storefront cafe in Little Italy. Outside, a couple of grizzled men on a sun-dappled stoop welcome the day with a beer. Inside, two women dressed in black blow smoke at each other over cups of cappuccino.

“Yeah, the neighborhood has changed,” says Bogosian, who has kept an apartment--now converted to an office--on this block for more than a decade. “When I first moved here only the winos hung out. Then an artist bought the whole block. When he renovated this abandoned building, all the rats moved across the street.”

Like his longtime neighborhood, Bogosian--monologuist, writer and actor--is at a crossroads. During the past 10 years, the curly-haired, nasal-voiced performer has risen from New York’s fabled downtown avant-garde art scene to become one of the country’s most acclaimed solo performers, in a league with Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. His series of one-man monologues--from the earliest works, “Men Inside” and “Voices in America,” to the award-winning “Drinking in America” in 1986 to last year’s Obie winner “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll"--comprise a brutal portrait of the morally and psychologically scarred American male psyche.

With his deft talent for mimicry and even defter ability as a writer, Bogosian has pilloried a rogue’s gallery of panhandlers and producers, coked-out super-agents and burned-out rock stars--a frighteningly accurate portrait of destructive behavior that transcends gender and has earned their creator a reputation as a most excoriating social commentator.

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When “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” opened Off Broadway last year, Frank Rich, chief theater critic of the New York Times, hailed the 90-minute monologue as proof that Bogosian “has crossed the line that separates an exciting artist from cultural hero. What Lenny Bruce was to the 1950s, Bob Dylan to the 1960s, Woody Allen to the 1970s--that’s what Eric Bogosian is to this frightening moment of drift in our history.”

Now, the artist is attempting to parlay that imprimatur into a larger--more mainstream--arena. “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” which opens a two-week run at the Mark Taper Forum Tuesday, is his first appearance in Los Angeles in nearly seven years and will be Bogosian’s final live solo performance before he launches full time into a Hollywood career as a screenwriter, actor and director.

“I don’t know that I want to keep talking about what jerks men are over and over again,” says Bogosian, unlocking the door to his first-floor office, a renovated former grocery store that once belonged to director Martin Scorsese’s parents.

“First of all, it’s not the most complex and subtle topic in the world. And in front of the largely liberal crowd that comes to see my shows, we all start agreeing about certain things. And ultimately, all the monologues are about the same thing--a lot of bad traits belonging to men. I think it might be more interesting to check out other things.”

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Checking out other things has resulted in a panoply of personal and professional changes for this 38-year-old performer who describes himself as being in the “curl of the baby boom"--and as a result sees much of his life and attitudes mirrored in society.

Offstage, Bogosian has easily forged the transition from fixture on the downtown art scene whose hard-living, drug-ingesting habits formed the basis for the good ol’ bad boys in his monologues to dutiful husband and father of two young children. His wife, Joanne Bonney, is now his director, and the bachelor life spent in this one-room studio where he could literally chase rats and eavesdrop on the neighborhood’s colorful street life--winos to heroin dealers--without leaving his bed, has given way to a summer home in New Jersey and a loft in New York’s coveted Tribeca district favored by David Letterman and Robert De Niro.

“I’m definitely done romancing poverty,” says Bogosian, settling into a chair in his renovated office, a soothing mix of white walls and black matte electronic equipment. “It’s an interesting posture as an artist but a dead end. It’s also one romance out of many. And if I’m going to be honest about my life, I’m not a wino. Maybe I was once, but I’m not anymore and I have to shift subject matters.”

That shift, however, has been less assured onstage. For all his popular and critical acclaim as a live performer--he’s won numerous grants and awards, including two Obies--Bogosian has yet to meet with similar success in the more mainstream media. His largest foray into Hollywood--co-authoring and starring in the 1988 feature film “Talk Radio"--was all but dismissed by the critics. Directed by Oliver Stone, “Talk Radio” combined the story lines of Bogosian’s stage play about a call-in radio host and the book “Talked To Death,” about the real-life murder of Denver radio personality Alan Berg.

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Since then he has written several scripts for Universal, none of which have been produced. His attempts at film acting, most notably a featured role in Robert Altman’s TV version of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” have been only marginally more successful.

“Let’s be honest about the way Hollywood works,” says Bogosian. “I am not box office. Every once in a while I’m approached about roles. The money is pretty amazing, but if these were great roles, De Niro would find time to play them. No, there is no crying need for me to be in front of a camera.”

As for the film version of “Talk Radio,” Bogosian stoutly maintains that the movie “was not a disappointment. I don’t want people just to think of me as a solo performer,” he says. “I wanted to make an in-your-face film, which is why I wanted to work with Oliver. Some critics liked it, some didn’t. But I made a lot of money and it was so low budget, I think even Universal made money.”

Currently, Bogosian is concentrating on writing. He has a script, “Mitty,” an updated version of the 1946 Danny Kaye film, in development at the Samuel Goldwyn Co., a firm that Bogosian says “seems to care more about getting a script made into a film than just using it as some sort of pawn.”

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His new non-solo play, “Suburbia,” is expected to be produced in New York sometime next season. And this summer, the second film based on Bogosian’s stage performances--the movie version of “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll"--will be released by Avenue Pictures. Directed by John McNaughton, one of the creators of last year’s shockingly visceral “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” and shot during five days of live performances in Boston last year, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” is meant to be the antithesis of the overdeveloped, overextended “Talk Radio"--a spare, raw concert film, “designed to make you feel like you are watching the show,” according to Bogosian.

“ ‘Talk Radio’ was very different from the play version,” he adds. “This film is essentially the (stage) show, and while something will be lacking in terms of live performance, I want more people to be able to see my work. The key thing is, no matter how many live performances I do, only a mere fragment of this country can see them.”

This latest merging of his talents from one discipline to the next is not dissimilar to those transitions attempted by such other stage artists as playwrights Sam Shepard and David Mamet, and performers Tomlin and Spalding Gray (currently performing his “Monster in a Box” at Los Angeles Theatre Center). For Bogosian, who likes to describe himself as pioneering a “rock ‘n’ roll style of acting,” the move from cutting-edge performer to bankable Hollywood player can be seen not only as personal artistic growth, but as indicative of larger aesthetic shifts now occurring in the nation’s cultural fabric.

“In 1982, I was wearing black and making nasty work and my work was canceled because of its nature,” says Bogosian. “Suddenly it’s fashionable to wear black and make nasty work. But in 1982, the severe irony that I and a bunch of artists, Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, were practicing was not common. The first real super-ironic piece to show up in New York was Mamet’s ‘Sexual Perversity in Chicago’ in 1982. It was shocking to audiences who thought that Mamet actually believed what his characters were saying. We all picked up on that. . . . Our end of the baby-boom generation is the first not to insist that there is a big bad guy someplace--Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Establishment--but to embrace irony and discard the finger-pointing.”

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Indeed, like fellow performance artists Laurie Anderson and Gray, Bogosian has hewed to an aesthetic that refuses to either reassure its audience or draw tidy moral conclusions. That stance, so unique during the heyday of the downtown art scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, has “somehow been absorbed into society,” says Bogosian. “We are not considered critical anymore.”

It’s a change that Bogosian sees reflected in audiences as well. “There was a time when people went to the theater to be involved in an art experience that drew them out of themselves. But today, we’re pretty much in an entertainment period. I’m asking the audience to enter this world for an hour and a half and I need them to understand I’m making a joke and we’re all in this together, instead of watching me like a TV show.”

Indeed, Bogosian says cutting-edge artists such as himself have “become part of one big laugh riot. Things that seemed unusual years ago, I can now see on ‘In Living Color.’ The lone exception is Andrew Dice Clay--who can be horrible and brilliant--people are still taking him literally. But I have to move on to new, more personal issues.”

Pursuing some of those more personal issues Bogosian says has to do with his forgoing of drugs, his marriage in 1984 and the birth of his two sons, Harry and Travis. “Talking is still my thing,” says the actor, who maintains an almost unbroken stream-of-consciousness conversational style offstage. “But chemically I’m not as burnt or angry as I was.

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“I’ve become more focused and clear about how and why I feel the way I do about certain things. And what interests me a lot--I’m being sort of preachy now--is the shape that New York City is in, the country’s economic situation, the savings and loan thing. So many of these things are complex, but going down to the parade for the Gulf War the other day, it was pretty clear that people have a crying need to feel good and unequivocal about things.”

That “fascist thing in us that says there is a black and a white, a right and a wrong,” is what Bogosian says drives him as an artist. “I don’t think there are any answers; complexity is central to my work.” At the same time, he explores sprawling social problems-- homelessness, drug addiction, economic and sexual exploitation--by delineating specific types, “archetypes, not stereotypes,” says Bogosian. “The key people in our society.”

The protagonists of “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll"--"stud, bottle-man, artist” among others, a list that Bogosian readily considers a sequel to the earlier “Drinking in America"--make up a panorama that according to Rich “maps out the entire international cycle of drug dependency, official hypocrisy and economic exploitation . . . the bleak Western landscape of 1990.”

“I like to look at human nature” says Bogosian, who spent several years hanging out in the city’s alleyways with drug addicts and street people, studying their body language and linguistic patterns. “It all breaks down to relationships. Drama is ultimately about people.”

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While initially populating his shows with characters drawn from the underclass, Bogosian has tried to broaden his focus by incorporating other characters, agents and producers, taken from the high end of his professional life. “There are two kinds of people in my shows--the street people and the business people,” says Bogosian, who still creates that medley of characters using only his voice and body, minimal props, no makeup and dressed simply in black jeans and a white shirt. “The business people come from my experiences in Hollywood during the past five years and they’re just as remarkable as the street people. Those guys yelling into the phone, they’ve been in vogue for a while now.”

Still others, “the guy’s guy kind,” Bogosian says, are extrapolations of his own reactions. What links the disparate group? “They’re all looking out for No. 1.”

“Like in ‘Stag Party,’ I wanted to do a sequel to that guy in ‘Drinking in America’ who is a Bruce Springsteen fan, has tattoos, muscles, drinks beer and smokes a joint with Billy and Joey and who thinks there is no finer moment than being wasted,” says Bogosian. “The reason I wanted to write that, was because there is a voice in me that says that’s true. It isn’t the apogee of human endeavor, but we’re told this a million times a day in commercials.”

Bogosian says that each monologue evolves along similar lines--a long period of observing people followed by a series of 15-20 minute improvisational sketches that he performs alone in his office with a only a tape recorder running. Eventually he transcribes those sketches that he likes, edits and rewrites them. After some direction provided by his wife, Bogosian performs them as works-in-progress at his old downtown venues such as the Kitchen and P.S. 122. The process can take several years, and many monologues never make the final cut.

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“I have to lay out what’s happening in four to five sentences. If I don’t I’ve taken way too long,” he says. “Like in ‘Benefit,’ you have to know that this guy is a really famous rock star who had a really big band, who did a lot of drugs and isn’t doing them anymore. Once I’ve established that, then I can go anywhere I want to.”

It is a delineation of character in witty, richly colloquial--frequently scatological--language, augmented, he says “by my voice and body movement.” Ultimately his craft and storytelling techniques lead to a larger end. “I do a lot of tricking people into laughing so they feel comfortable with the character,” he says. “And then I move them into a sad or uncomfortable spot. It’s not about good guys and bad guys. I like to think that given similar circumstances, we could all end being pretty bad. It’s all very Brechtian, of course.”

Ask Bogosian about the origins of his artistry and he will dismiss the question with “I was a kid who spent a lot of time by himself, who liked to look at himself make funny faces in a mirror and who loved to perform. I didn’t understand any of this as positive attributes until I was in 10th grade and we did a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in school.”

The only son of an accountant and a hairdresser, Bogosian grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in the decidedly middle-class town of Woburn, Mass., where he performed in several school productions while staging protests “over the length we could wear our hair to school,” says Fred Zollo, a film and theater producer and former classmate. “He wasn’t particularly funny as a performer,” adds Zollo, who is the producer of both the stage and film versions of “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.” “He was much more effective as a writer. He used to draw cartoons and write very funny letters.”

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After graduation from high school, Bogosian attended the University of Chicago “where I learned to write and edit” before dropping out after two years. He spent a year working at a Gap store in a mall, before returning to school in Ohio, where he majored in theater at Oberlin College. He moved to New York in 1975, worked first as gofer at the Chelsea Westside Theater, later moving downtown to the performance art scene. Although he tried first to get work as a an actor and a playwright, he did not meet with his first real success until he created an obnoxious clubmeister persona known as Ricky Paul.

“I wanted something that was very punk,” recalls Bogosian. “Somebody who would get in the audience’s face. I had been performing in theaters and I wanted to go into the clubs where the highest energy level was. That’s what happened. People threw bottles and spit at me.”

He began to add to his show with characters taken from the street, from television, rock-and-roll and late-night radio. “Funhouse” opened at the prestigious Public Theater. “Drinking in America” won him a Drama Desk award for outstanding solo performer. By 1985, Bogosian was working with Oliver Stone.

Now, he is trying to figure out Hollywood’s ropes. He wants to direct, of course, but readily admits, “If I’m a director, I’m in kindergarten and the kind of screenplays I’m writing are for graduate-level directors.” He says he will continue to write character monologues, “but maybe only to publish, not perform them. People seem to expect me to do this nasty sardonic thing onstage. And I know I can make people laugh. I can act like a ding-dong with the best of them. But maybe I want to go somewhere else, maybe I want to be this quiet man for a change.”

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For instance, his next play, “Suburbia,” is an exploration of the derailing of the American Dream--"a group of middle-class kids who’ve been steered into a misconception of how this country works.” His screenplay, “Mitty,” Bogosian says reflects his own predilection “for spending a great deal of time pretending to be other people.”

“I’m drifting towards less angry, less know-it-all stuff,” he says when asked about his future work. “I don’t know it all anymore. I’ve gotten two Obies for my work and the tradition of the Obies, which are given by the Village Voice, is that the whole society is wrong and the poor and downtrodden are right. Well, I don’t know that I agree with that anymore. . . . The selfishness that we learned in the ‘70s--it’s a cul-de-sac. Drugs? There’s never going to be a transcendent experience in that kind of self-centeredness. You have to be involved with other people. I sound like Kierkegaard now, but . . . if there is any such thing as wisdom in my work, it’s to open ourselves to more, different answers. There are many possibilities and I want to have the courage to think openly.”


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