Dallas — Eric Bogosian commands a stage like a revved-up rock star, a cocky gang leader, a strolling bard with salt and pepper hair and a chip on his shoulder. You name it and he just might have that character in the unique bag of tricks he draws from in Bitter Honey: The Best of 100 (Monologues), directed by his wife Jo Bonney. It's onstage at the Wyly Theatre for three more performances this weekend (8 p.m. Friday; 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday) in the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Off-Broadway on Flora series. At each, he’ll perform monologues from the published collection of his off-Broadway work between 1980 and 2000. Opening night audiences laughed, clapped and hollered for the legendary performer. It was noisy proof the material has not gone stale, and the baker is still serving it up hot.
Stocky in physique and muscular in delivery, Bogosian holds his audience through his razor-sharp insights into America’s fretful, politically clichéd, faith floundering, spun-out consumer culture. Add to that a riveting delivery, no matter what character he’s channeling, whether a drug-happy biker or a tight-ass airline reservationist. He has an amazing fast-fire ability to refine the characters around us in the scene—through voice, accent, gesture—and an uncanny gift for shape-shifting from good doc to terrifying doc, with every idiom of the trade intact. You might find yourself checking side affects from your meds going out—and maybe your insurance coverage.
Opening night’s stroll-on opening monologue is a classic piece of Bogosian character-building. From a modest, broadly smiling, communal-minded, convivial host, he suddenly shifts to a glittery-eyed man intent on the particular effect of bodies colliding. At one moment, he’s talking about all of us embarked on a journey in this theater ship, all unique snowflakes forming a storm, rising to mountain peaks and melting in a rush to the ocean. We are a force of nature! We will leave here and do something loving, something big! Invent stuff.
Then he gradually begins to unweave his own magic carpet. He actually doubts his ability—and ours—to sustain any kind of communal vision. Spiraling down fast from there, he tests our humanity against our greed and puts his own body in the line of fire. Make that a ball of fire. Then on to the lame icons of films in our time. “The blind leading the retarded,” he says, unapologetically uttering the R-word and invoking Forrest Gump, a low point in Western civilization’s heroes, for sure. From there, it’s a shout, a sneer and a wink to oblivion. Call Nietzsche for consolation. We’re down for the count. And laughing. The guy’s a bard for our times—a sexy, brave, fierce, fast-talking sleight-of-hand man who takes us in, again and again, then slams the door so hard we have to laugh.
Famed for his forthright view of the universe according to the faithful, Bogosian did not disappoint opening night audiences with back-to-back pieces. I loved the monologue of the disgruntled subscriber just arrived from her nice yoga lesson and asking, “What’s this show about anyway?” All she wants is a little catharsis, but what she hears is negative stuff and way, way too much swearing. “So what are you saying? We should all kill ourselves? You have no spirituality. You don’t believe in anything. You need to have more faith,” intones the performer in his bitchy subscriber mode.
And with that, Bogosian leaps from the only chair on stage, hardens his voice and leans hard into the audience on the nature of faith and the God he believes in. “My God is all powerful. My God could feed every person on the planet Earth, like that!” he says, snapping his fingers. “He could heal children with cancer, and give us a parking space or two.” But his God “doesn’t like to do the easy stuff” because “it’s boring to him.” He’s got integrity. He’s not going to sell out.
The gossipy story of the impregnation of Mary and birth of God’s only son is richly, swiftly brought down to the desert sand with street-wise savvy. “God doesn’t have a kid in every town, like some NBA player,” he tells us. Our dude approaches the crucifixion with a you-gotta-hand-it-to-him tone about such inventive torture on God’s part.
The whole monologue is rendered in hard nails, sun-drenched detail, and with the furious certainty of a man who’s read the word. “I’m not making this up, it’s all in the Bible, you can read it when you get home,” he declares. When he wraps this one, he reminds us that this is God’s response “to his own kid.” So, figure it out. The performer accused of negativism and faithlessness defends himself. “I have faith. I have faith that really, really bad shit happens,” he says, walking off the stage.
In this—and other edgy swipes at a simplistic, self-serving view of human prospects, I was reminded of British poet and wit W. H. Auden’s famed defense of pessimism. He believed “luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.” Auden, like Bogosian, advises that he’d “face it as a wise man would/and plan for ill and not for good.” But Bogosian brings a humorous warmth to his pessimism. He clearly appreciates the simple joys of his bumbling biker with his dope-fueled sex orgies.
I saw Bogosian nine years ago at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, and he’s as compelling as ever. Easy to see why he won three Obie Awards and a Drama Desk Award—and why you won’t want to miss this surprising and hilarious actor who proves that good writing is the human voice writ.
You can buy Bogosian’s 100 (Monologues) in the Wyly lobby, by the way. Pretty awesome in print, too, especially with that voice still ringing in your ears.
» Read our interview with Bogosian here
» View videos of actors and others performing the monologues in the 100monologues.com project; embedded at the top of this story is the monologue "Shining Star," performed by actor J. Erik Cook. Bogosian performed it on Thursday night.