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Drinking in America/Clevinger's Trial

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DRINKING IN AMERICA

Drinking in America, the show that made Eric Bogosian famous and allowed him to step out of Soho's arts ghetto into the lucrative mainstream, is only a little more than seven years old, but it's already showing its age. Written and first performed when both solo performances and the backlash against booze and drugs were still something of a novelty, Drinking in America now seems trite, obvious, and artistically exhausted.

In 12 relentless unrelated monologues, Bogosian introduces us to a handful of lonely, thoroughly unlikable characters, few of whom have stories interesting or original enough to justify their time on the stage. Bogosian's more tightly structured play Talk Radio revealed his eye for the vermin populating America's underbelly: bigoted Holy Rollers, unctuous salesmen, coked-up Hollywood agents. But in this play, it's clear that once he maneuvers his characters onstage he doesn't really know what to do with them.

In "American Dreamer," for example, Bogosian creates a dead-on portrait of a street alcoholic, right down to the passive-aggressive way he hassles everyone who gets too close: "You a beautiful lady. Anybody tell you that?" But once he's convinced us that this man is drunk and annoying Bogosian has nowhere to go, and he spends the second half of the monologue telling us in excruciating detail about the bum's idea of true luxury: a penthouse stocked with "good whiskey, Old Crow and Old Granddad, Colt 45 on tap, and French wine from France."

Beneath his humor you can see Bogosian's barely concealed contempt, a contempt that bubbles right through to the surface when he makes fun of salesmen, yuppies, and Bible thumpers. One of Bogosian's biggest laughs in "Ceramic Tile" comes when the speaker tries to impress an unseen woman by stating proudly that he's an "industrial ceramic tile salesman." Bogosian wants us to laugh at this pathetic vulgarian, not with him.

Far too rare are bits like "Our Gang," in which a drugged-out gang member relates in gleeful detail the insane antics of he and a friend the night before, antics which become so wild and unbelievable as the monologue progresses--stealing and setting fire to a hippie's van, invading the home of an innocent farmer and his wife and tying them up--that it's clear the young man is lying just to impress. This monologue is so perfectly written (and performed by Michael Shannon) that it puts the rest of the show to shame.

In bringing Bogosian's material to life, relative newcomer Shannon displays a remarkable range and depth, stepping from one character to another with ease. With just a shift in posture or the addition or subtraction of a pair of glasses, Shannon transforms himself instantly and utterly from a wino to a tile salesman to a kvetchy Greek restaurateur. Such superb artistry backfires, however, as it becomes clear that Shannon deserves better than the shallow stuff Bogosian has dished out.

CLEVINGER'S TRIAL

Joseph Heller's very short one-act Clevinger's Trial, adapted from a seven-page episode in Catch-22, was cut from Heller's stage version of the novel when it was first performed in 1971 because the play ran too long. After all, as Heller himself admitted, Clevinger was never anything but "a secondary character whose basic function . . . is to come on stage as a trusting, idealistic young man and be slaughtered."

Even in the novel, Clevinger's story about an Air Force cadet who is put on trial for reasons no one can quite articulate feels like a digression. All of which would lead one to believe that the story of Clevinger's trial, with its absurdist Through the Lookingglass dialogue and its many jabs at army judicial procedure, would make a good stand-alone play.

Sadly, Heller has done little more than lift the episode straight from the book, and the resulting play is little more than a quarter hour long. Which means no sooner do we become adjusted to Heller's satirical-absurdist universe with its thinly veiled attacks on cold-war paranoia than the play's over.

The shortness of Heller's play proves fatal to Eric Zudak's production, which takes a long time to find its satiric legs--thanks in part to Keith Berkes's bland portrayal of Yossarian and Chris Gerson's equally colorless take on Clevinger. (It certainly didn't help that on opening night Colin Cordwell still seemed unsure of his lines.) But even if all of the performers had been right on the mark, this glorified curtain raiser would still easily be the worst deal in Chicago late-night theater.

The Walking Company
at Red Orchid Theater
CLEVINGER'S TRIAL
The Griffin Theatre Company

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