If Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll documented yuppies replacing ‘60s ideals with microwave ovens, bar codes and the “Greed is Good” of the ‘80s, it also not so surreptitiously ushered in recognition of people living outside those new norms. Though not topical, its themes – greed, excess, poverty, urban isolation to name a few – are notable, considering the play was performed on the heels of the Reagan Administration.
The Living Room, who produced Bogosian’s cult favorite Talk Radio in their first season, chooses Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll to open their third season. In it, actor Forrest Attaway attacks the twelve character monologues, each directed by a different director. The collaborative approach works, illuminating the influence of each director on Attaway’s performance of characters ranging from a Mephistophelean businessman (the Jerry Genochio-directed Rock Law) to the mouselike man of Bottleman (directed by Living Room co-founder Shawnna Journagan).
Indeed, among the show’s most compelling moments are Attaway as the play’s more vulnerable characters. Dirt (directed by Tim Ahlenius) is, both, brutally absurd and disturbingly touching. The monologue, an urban rant in free verse, builds to a crescendo of environmental degradation, making the character sound not unlike one of Barry Champlain’s callers from Bogosian’s Talk Radio. Attaway is heartbreaking here, repeating his question of people who would be passing him, from a safe distance, on the street. Likewise heartbreaking is the dumbshow of Attaway in black dress (the Mackenzie Goodwin-directed Candy) as a recording of an 800 number plays.
Each of the twelve characters are memorable, if also off-putting, and intentionally so. That’s because each character is essentially an outsider to or virulent observer of his world, the late ‘80s. That world – of insider trading, consumerism, environmental anxiety (hold onto that word, anxiety, because it surfaces in these characters, each of whom either succeed or don’t in taming what makes them anxious) – is one Bogosian clearly stratified into them and we. And, tellingly, the we is really me.
Unsurprisingly, Bogosian’s most powerless characters are the angriest. In the Warren Deckert-directed Dog Chameleon, Attaway delivers the most direct and frankly sociopath performance ever written or performed. After listing the totems of respectability and normalcy, the character, using a microphone, says, “Normalcy is expensive.” He then delivers a scathing indictment of those totems and of people that frightens for Attaway’s quiet insistence.
Though the first act veers from clowns (the Cody Wyoming-directed Benefit) to hotheads (the aforementioned Rock Law), or variants between these two extremes, Act 2 seems comprised entirely of Type A personalities. This would include the drop-out (the Johnny Wolfe-directed Artist), whose isolation, softened by a toke, is marginally less threatening than Dog Chameleon, if only for the kinds of things you can only say when you’re high: “It’s not English; it’s computer.”
The modern world, the world of them and we, of money vs. no money, is what gives these twelve men their anger, their anxiety, or, their easy acknowledgement that they’re going along for the ride (the Chris Roady-directed Live, in which Attaway pats his belly and assures his friend that whatever the next thing is, he’ll buy it).
Attaway gives an impressive performance as each of the twelve characters, some with more nuance than others. Though his English accent seemed to fade In Benefit, he makes a gesture with his arm that I’m certain I’ve seen Keith Richard do in an interview. Is it a gesture made by men who have shot drugs at one time make, a reminder that their arm is still part of them? I’m not sure, but it invested the character with a reality more moving than his rock star egotism.
Throughout the play, Attaway is helped, as it were, by the “Sexy Stagehands,” – Mandy Morris, Amy Kelly, Kenna Hall – who, besides moving set pieces, of boxes and chairs and glasses or bottles, also provide Attaway a chance to switch into his next character. The transitions, choreographed by Morris, work most provocatively with the darker characters here, the jailcell rapper of X-Blow or the unabashedly sociopath Dog Chameleon.
Kudos, too, to John Kimbball’s lighting, which mimicked that of a concert, at moments. His use of red light to suffuse Attaway’s face in a moment from Rock Law was a visually strong choice that left no doubt that the director and actor were going for the jugular with this character. Megan Turek’s costumes were effective, as was the rock soundtrack by Cody Wyoming. The only detail that rattled the eye was a pesky cord in the above scene. I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional obstacle or a cumbersome prop placement.
Though clearly a timepiece, the anxiety of the characters Bogosian penned in the late ‘80s still works today. It’s poetic coincidence that anxiety disorder was first coined in 1980 and that, throughout his first term, President Reagan made cuts to mental health services, leading to many people flooding the streets who were previously in institutions.
It’s easy to imagine Bogosian passing them on the streets – it’s a given that Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll’s geographical world is New York – and knowing they were characters. In the Living Room’s production, Attaway gives them voice again. It’s the only power they have.