Ever since Charlton Heston hurled those stone tablets down from a papier-máche Mt. Sinai at some disobedient young Hebrews, audiences have thrived on the misadventures of rowdy young rebels. It's a hormonal line that stretches from Our Gang, the Bowery Boys, and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals to such films as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and most significantly, Bye Bye Birdie.
We now have Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia at the Cleveland Public Theatre (through December 12). Hanging out in front of a convenience store in suburban Anywhere, U.S.A., is a group of twentysomethings, desperately in need of a good spanking. These Generation X-ers, who once would have been concerned about doing the Varsity Drag, getting asked to the prom, securing tickets for the Sinatra concert, putting on a swell show, buying war bonds, terrorizing "squares," pirouetting at the rumble, or being kissed by Conrad Birdie, are now dealing with an advanced case of nihilism.
Playwright Bogosian specializes in paradoxically likable angry diatribes that give voice to the dispossessed. Like David Mamet, he creates an entire universe out of stylized profanity, yet his work is blessedly free of the ellipses and rank pretentiousness of his theatrical colleague. He can make the inarticulate as joyfully expressive as a Sheridan rake or Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat.
SubUrbia picks up on that same old gang that has been hanging about since someone invented the first Coca-Cola. The handsome misfit, the blighted rosebud, the poetess on the way out, the visiting celeb, and the jealous hero are all immersed here in ennui and Jack Daniel's.
Where playwrights of the generation of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams showed characters dashed against smothering and unyielding social mores, Bogosian writes of a wasteland sans all rules, as desolate as T.S. Eliot's and Samuel Beckett's. Here all destinies, successes, or failures seem as arbitrary as the spin of a roulette wheel.
Unless one checked one's ticket stub, he might almost believe himself at some chic little off-Broadway theater, watching the latest batch of prodigies from New York's toniest acting schools. Even while speaking dialogue that would give that little old lady from Dubuque a conniption, these sweet earth angels are talented and supple enough to turn the verbal vinegar into sweet cider. An evening to turn under-thirty theater virgins into full-fledged aficionados.
Director Agnes Wilcox, all the way from St. Louis, has applied a sure, commanding hand to these cunning cuties and has fully earned her round-trip Greyhound ticket to Cleveland and back. However, earning a first-class ticket on a Boeing 707 to Baden-Baden and back is set designer Oliver Sshngen, the true star of the evening, for his inspired convenience store set built out of milk cartons and fast-food paraphernalia.
For all of the reasons stated above and for giving young people--even those younger than this critic--a good excuse to attend live theater, SubUrbia is a blessing out of disguise.
SubUrbia, through December 12, Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.