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The Young Ones

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"The baby boom generation is a 300-pound gorilla," observes Agnes Wilcox, director of the play SubUrbia, which opens November 19 at the Cleveland Public Theatre. "We have the jobs, we have the money. We need to look more seriously at the younger generation's concerns."
SubUrbia, the 1994 play by Eric Bogosian, takes a serious look at the anomie of members of so-called Generation X, who, lacking the idealism and opportunity of their elders, drift along in a haze of cigarettes, junk food, videos, and pseudo-philosophical talk.

Set in the fictional town of Burnfield, Texas, the play illustrates a night in the life of a group of suburbanites in their early twenties who converge at their regular gathering place, a convenience-store parking lot. They drink, argue, inline skate, have sex, and torment the store's Pakistani owners.

The play's conscience is provided by Jeff, a thoughtful college dropout who has vague aspirations to write. His girlfriend, Sooze, a high-spirited punkette, longs to move to New York to become a performance artist. (Her solo piece is one of the play's comic highlights.)

The group also includes BeeBee, a desperately sad alcoholic just released from rehab; Buff, a funny vulgarian who works in a pizza parlor and wants to direct videos; and Tim, a nihilistic ex-Marine. All await the arrival of Pony, a former classmate who is now a minor rock star. When Pony pulls up in his limousine, the others are forced to confront their own hopes and despair.

"Staying or leaving" is the crux of the characters' dilemma, according to Bogosian, the monologuist, playwright, and occasional actor best known for the film versions of his Talk Radio and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. That stay-or-go quandary is hardly unique to '90s youth; it has plagued would-be artists for generations. Bogosian, 45, based SubUrbia on his own experience as an aimless twenty-year-old college dropout, hanging out with friends at a strip mall in Woburn, a suburb near Boston. "We had vague, shiny plans for the future," Bogosian recalled in his preface to the screenplay. "We were all going to do great things."

A great admirer of Bogosian, Agnes Wilcox directed a production of SubUrbia in 1996 at the New Theatre in St. Louis, where she is artistic director. She believes young adults can benefit from seeing the play, and that it can be "a catalyst for conversation between generations."

Not everyone in St. Louis shared her zeal to acquaint teenagers with SubUrbia, which abounds with profanity, casual sex, and brutality; the year before the New Theatre production, a busload of St. Louis honor students had traveled to Chicago to see the play, only to be hauled out at intermission by crimson-faced teachers. Wilcox averted similar turbulence by inviting student groups to the play and organizing discussion groups around its themes. She hopes to do the same in Cleveland.

Although there was a film adaptation in 1996, slackly directed by Slacker director Richard Linklater, SubUrbia is one of those plays that is best appreciated onstage. Wilcox's assessment of the movie is more blunt: "It's so horrible! It didn't have one laugh in it."

The cast of CPT's production includes James Winter, Dan McElhaney, Diane Mull, Jason Markouc, Connie Thackaberry, Tyson Postma, Walid Issa, Nadia Akhtar, and Nina Angeloff. "The actors are wonderful," Wilcox raves. "I was so relieved to find that Cleveland has extraordinary young actors."

The greatest challenges in directing SubUrbia, Wilcox says, are physical. "Real glass doors, real mailbox, real Rollerblades, real dumpster--they make demands of the acting company."

SubUrbia makes demands of the audience as well. "It asks many questions, and it gives no answers. That," Wilcox declares, "is good art."

--Pamela Zoslov

SubUrbia runs through December 12 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12, seniors and students $8. Call 216-631-2727 for ticket information.

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